As Swiss and Swedish investigators probe allegations of corruption and money-laundering involving Uzbekistan, one name is increasingly appearing linked to the cases: Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of strongman President Islam Karimov.
Leaked documents (whose authenticity is not confirmed) relating to the Swiss money-laundering inquiry suggest that investigators have identified the suspect at the heart of the probe as an associate of Karimova’s and designated the case politically sensitive.
A French-language letter (carried by regional news site Centrasia.ru) purportedly sent by anti-laundering investigators to the Swiss Office of the Attorney General suggests the Uzbek government -- perhaps inadvertently -- sparked the money-laundering probe that is now coming uncomfortably close to Karimova.
The letter states that the probe was launched after investigators received notification from Geneva-based bank Lombard Odier (acting under its legal obligations) that one of its clients was on the Interpol wanted list for alleged fraud.
That client was Bekhzod Akhmedov, former director of the Uzbekistan subsidiary of Russian cellphone company MTS. Tashkent declared him wanted after he fled the country amid a row between the firm and the government that culminated with Tashkent seizing MTS’s assets this summer.
Uzbekistan is facing a second corruption investigation in Europe, as Swedish police open a graft probe into claims that Swedish-Finnish telecoms giant TeliaSonera paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes for the rights to operate in Uzbekistan. The case is allegedly linked to a money-laundering investigation in Switzerland.
TeliaSonera (whose largest shareholders are the Swedish and Finnish states) said that Swedish police are investigating allegations of “bribes and money laundering” involving Uzbekistan. The allegations surfaced in a September 19 documentary on Swedish broadcaster SVT.
“We can confirm that the Swedish police has collected information from TeliaSonera regarding Uzbekistan,” TeliaSonera – which owns the Ucell mobile phone company in Uzbekistan – said in a statement on September 26. It said that the company had already announced an external review “regarding the allegations of bribes and money laundering” and that now the Swedish Prosecuting Authorities’ anti-corruption unit had launched its own probe, “which we welcome.”
TeliaSonera has denied any wrongdoing but pledged to “cooperate fully” with the Swedish investigation, which follows SVT’s allegations that the firm paid hundreds of millions of dollars to “a small, one-woman company in a tax haven” for the rights to operate in Uzbekistan. The company, Takilant Limited, is run out of Gibraltar by Uzbekistan national Gayane Avakyan.
Kazakhstan got a new prime minister on September 24 after President Nursultan Nazarbayev accepted the resignation of premier Karim Masimov and promoted Masimov’s former deputy, Serik Akhmetov.
Early in the day, Masimov tendered his resignation and Nazarbayev immediately asked the rubberstamp parliament – which contains no opposition parties – to vote on Akhmetov’s candidacy for the job. Deputies obliged with a unanimous vote in favor.
Masimov, who served for nearly six years, is Kazakhstan’s longest-serving prime minister since independence. His removal was long rumored amid suggestions that he had carved out a political powerbase that Nazarbayev – who guards his own enormous power jealously -- might see as a threat.
But Masimov – an affable character credited with steering Kazakhstan through the credit crunch – did not depart in disgrace: Nazarbayev praised his premiership, and Masimov got a powerful new job as head of the presidential administration, making him Nazarbayev’s gatekeeper. Masimov thus retains the influence that has led some analysts to tip him as a possible presidential successor.
Kazakhstan’s government is moving to prevent state media outlets diverging from the official line when covering emergencies -- from terrorist attacks and accidents to earthquakes and, it seems, labor unrest.
New agreements with editors of state media would prevent “the dissemination of alternative information through all distribution channels – TV, newspapers, the Internet,” Minister of Culture and Information Darkhan Mynbay said in comments carried by Tengri News this week.
That would include flagship TV channels Khabar and Kazakstan, which play a major role in forming public opinion, as well as radio stations like Kazakhskoye Radio and newspapers such as Kazakhstanskaya Pravda.
The minister said Astana was in the process of reaching agreements with editors of state media outlets “on not permitting the distribution of unofficial information and a negative interpretation of official information which casts doubt on the veracity of information, or the competence of the speaker, or calls on citizens to commit some actions.” He did not specify what actions he had in mind.
Mynbay added that the government was forming a pool of approved journalists to which it would pass information during emergencies.
US-based watchdog Freedom House has published a report documenting alleged abuses of due process at the trial of opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov and two others charged with fomenting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December which left 15 dead.
The report alleges violations of the rights to a fair trial of the three defendants—Kozlov, opposition activist Serik Sapargaly and former oil worker Akzhanat Aminov, who was prominent in a labor strike that preceded the unrest. Kozlov and Aminov face three charges of fomenting social unrest; calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order (tantamount to calling for the overthrow of the state); and setting up a criminal group. Sapargaly faces the first two counts.
The abuses documented by Freedom House include the denial of a defense motion to question individuals whose names have been mentioned frequently at the trial; the inclusion of testimony from prosecution witnesses whom the defense has not questioned; and the “possible falsification of testimony.”
Five suspected terrorists have been shot dead in a security operation in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich west, following a blast in the city of Atyrau last week in which one man died.
The shootout with police took place in the town of Kulsary, 230 kilometers from the energy hub of Atyrau, Tengri News reports. Another suspect and one police officer were injured.
Security forces moved in on suspects “involved in the activity of a terrorist group” on September 12, Tengri News quoted the prosecutor’s office as saying, and shot the five dead after they reportedly exploded some devices and opened fire on police.
The incident follows a September 5 explosion in an Atyrau apartment in which one man died. Investigators believe he was making explosive devices in order to attack the security forces and have arrested four suspected accomplices.
Once-calm Kazakhstan experienced a spate of extremist-related incidents in 2011, and – after what appeared to be a lull in terrorist activity in the first half of 2012 – incidents are again occurring with frequency.
On July 11 an explosion in the village of Tausamaly outside Almaty killed four adults and four children. Investigators believe the blast was an accidental detonation in a house being used to make bombs. Then, on July 30, six men suspected of murdering two law-enforcement officers were shot dead by police in Almaty.
A report prepared by the global watchdog group Human Rights Watch suggests hardline tactics employed by officials in Kazakhstan prepared the ground for confrontation in the western city of Zhanaozen in late 2011. The finding contradicts official claims that outside actors and political malcontents were responsible for causing the deadly rioting.
President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan has upped his rhetoric against neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, warning that their efforts to build hydroelectric power stations on rivers upstream could spark war.
Speaking during an official visit to Astana on September 7, Karimov launched a broadside against Bishkek and Dushanbe, which, he said, “forget that the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya are trans-border rivers.”
“Why do you think such questions [sharing limited international water resources] are discussed by the United Nations?” he asked in remarks quoted by Kazakhstan’s Bnews website.
It was a rhetorical question: “Because today many experts declare that water resources could tomorrow become a problem around which relations deteriorate, and not only in our region. Everything can be so aggravated that this can spark not simply serious confrontation but even wars.”
Karimov has long been a vociferous opponent of plans by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to complete long-stalled hydropower dam projects -- Rogun on the Vakhsh River (the headwaters of the Amu-Darya) in Tajikistan and Kambarata on the Naryn River (which becomes the Syr-Darya) in Kyrgyzstan.
Tashkent says the dams could disrupt water supplies to downstream states, adversely impacting its economy and damaging the environment. Bishkek and Dushanbe counter that they need to harness hydropower to kick-start their ailing economies.
The Swiss Attorney General’s Office has confirmed that a money-laundering investigation has been opened against four Uzbek citizens, two of whom are under arrest in Switzerland.
“The Attorney General’s Office (OAG) confirms the arrest of two Uzbek citizens at Geneva,” a spokeswoman told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail, specifying that the arrests were made “due to a criminal investigation of the OAG.”
“At this stage, the investigation is conducted in respect of money laundering and against four Uzbek citizens,” the Attorney General’s Office said.
None of the individuals were named, but the confirmation of the money-laundering probe came in response to a query filed by EurasiaNet.org following local media reports about the arrest of two well-connected Uzbek citizens in Geneva that had, according to press speculation, sparked a protest last month at the Swiss Embassy in Tashkent.
Regional news site Centrasia.ru reported that the embassy was picketed by a group of 10-11 people carrying placards saying “Shame on Switzerland!” in protest against the detention of two Uzbek staff members of Coca-Cola Uzbekistan, named as Aliyer Irgashev and Shahruh Sabirov (the latter was named in other sources as Farruh Saberov).
Citing “sources,” Centrasia.ru suggested the protest was organized by a foundation run by Gulnara Karimova, eldest daughter of President Islam Karimov -- the Forum of Culture and Art of Uzbekistan (Fund Forum for short). Neither the foundation nor Coca-Cola Uzbekistan have responded to emails requesting comment sent in August.