A top banker has been arrested in Uzbekistan on suspicion of making a fortune out of Uzbekistan’s black currency market and laundering the proceeds.
The arrest comes as the rate of the currency, the sum, soars against the dollar on the black market, creating even larger than usual profit margins for those in control of the illegal trade.
Asaka Bank chairman Kahramon Oripov is in detention on suspicion of “currency crimes and legalization of criminal revenues,” an unnamed spokesperson for the General Prosecutor’s Office told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency on February 12.
The confirmation of Oripov’s arrest, which had been rumored, came days after he was dismissed by the government as chairman of the state-owned Asaka Bank, which handles payments for the automobile industry in Uzbekistan.
Oripov is suspected of exploiting the bank’s position as the financial institution responsible for taking payments for car purchases to carry out his scheme, the Tashkent-based Uzmetronom.com website reported earlier this month.
This was allegedly made possible by the unorthodox system through which payments are made to purchase cars in Uzbekistan, whereby only dollars, rather than sum, are accepted to buy some models of vehicles assembled in-country by the GM Uzbekistan, a US-Uzbekistani joint venture which accounts for the bulk of the country’s car sales.
The money to buy a car must be deposited in dollars at an account in Asaka Bank, which is supposed to transfer it in hard currency to Uzavtosanoat, the state company that holds Tashkent’s share in GM Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has joined in with the chorus of gay-bashing sweeping the former Soviet Union by condemning same-sex relationships as a “vile phenomenon of Western culture.”
The tenor of the remarks should not come as altogether surprising since homosexual acts are illegal in Uzbekistan and are punishable by prison sentences of up to three years.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik, reported on February 6 that Karimov made the comments during a council session of the people’s deputies of the Tashkent region.
“If a man lives with a man, or a woman with a women, I think that something there isn’t quite right, or some change has happened,” Karimov was quoted as saying.
It is unclear what motivated the president to make the comments.
Sexual minorities are among many social groups targeted for regular intimidation by authorities in Uzbekistan.
In a recent case, two police officers were fired after a video came to light showing them beating a transvestite in the Tashkent district of Chilanzar.
Ozodlik reported that the footage, which was circulated through the Telegram messaging program, shows the two police officers in civilian clothing bursting into a rented apartment and assaulting a young man dressed in women’s clothing and two of his male companions. The raid is said to have taken place following complaints from neighbors.
The incident reportedly occurred in August, but only gained exposure earlier this year.
Uzbekistan is the only country in the former Soviet Union where male homosexuality is illegal, but legislation has been implemented in Russia and is being considered in Kyrgyzstan that aims to further ostracize the LGBT communities there.
The people of Uzbekistan are apparently satisfied corruption is on the wane, while the president of Turkmenistan is indignant it is still rampant.
The “good news” first.
Podrobno.uz website reported on February 1 that a survey in Uzbekistan carried out by polling company Izhtimoy Fikr (Public Opinion) has found that experiences of corruption declined markedly from 2013 to 2014.
Izhtimoy Fikr is notorious for its almost comically unrealistic surveys, so the vat of salt should probably be taken with only a pinch of seriousness and perhaps only to understand the extent to which the government intends to embark on a serious fight against corruption.
Perceptions of corruption in the health care sector dropped from 37.7 percent to 25.5 percent, in education it went from 37.8 percent to 24.2 percent, and in the justice system from 24.3 percent to 14.6 percent, according to the poll.
The question “Is there corruption in Uzbekistan” yielded a 34 percent positive response in the latest query, compared to 36 percent in 2012 and 53 percent in 2011.
As many 74.5 percent of respondents believe the fight against corruption is being waged effectively. Leaving the best for last, Podrobno.uz reveals that Izhtimoiy Fikr’s survey found that 80 percent claimed that they have never been exposed to extortion or bribery.
Strong anecdotal evidence suggests the real number may well literally be zero.
Transparency International’s recently issued Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 shows Uzbekistan in 153rd place out of 165 countries listed, coming in just behind Zimbabwe.
In its eagerness to counteract Islamic extremism, Uzbekistan has embraced a Cultural Revolution-style naming and shaming exercise.
Parents are being hauled before public meetings to be admonished for the sins of their militant sons and daughters in scenes reminiscent of the public castigations common during the Cultural Revolution in 1960s China.
“This sacred land, where model family relations are rooted, never forgives those who do not care about their children's future,” a doom-laden TV program intoned on January 26, according to a translation by BBC Monitoring.
“Unfortunately, some people, who have forgotten their parental obligations and are bringing up their children as traitors, do not seem to realize it,” the program – broadcast on the main state channel – said.
TV screens were filled with a sobbing elderly couple whose son is allegedly fighting with militants in Syria, filmed at a public meeting held in the Andijan Region in eastern Uzbekistan.
Although other areas of the country were featured in the program, the choice of Andijan as a venue was telling. The city was the scene of fatal unrest in 2005 which the government blamed on Islamic extremists, a version disputed by many survivors and by international human rights groups.
“What are the goals of these traitors? Who are they fighting for and dying for as dogs?” state TV asked rhetorically in its latest broadside against extremists, over footage of burials in foreign war zones.
President Islam Karimov frequently embraces alarmist talk about the threat to Uzbekistan and the wider region of Islamic extremism emanating out of Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan’s foreign minister has begun a round of annual consultations in Washington that happen to follow shortly after Tashkent launched an offensive to recover millions of dollars frozen in a U.S. corruption case involving the Uzbek president’s daughter.
Abdulaziz Komilov began the three-day talks on January 19 with a meeting with Nisha Desai Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent said in an e-mailed statement.
Topics for discussion include the usual suspects: security, political developments, human rights and trade. But one onlie Uzbek media outlet is speculating that Komilov may also be raising another thorny topic behind the scenes.
According to documents recently filed with a U.S. court, copies of which have been seen by EurasiaNet.org, Tashkent has begun pressing for the release of $300 million in assets frozen during a bribery investigation involving the president’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova. The last that was heard of Karimova, she was under house arrest in Tashkent.
The funds are allegedly illicit proceeds from “an international conspiracy to launder corrupt payments” made in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector, according to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice last summer.
The $300 million – held in Bank of New York Mellon accounts in Belgium, Ireland, and Luxemburg – were frozen by a U.S. Federal Court order in July.
The lawsuit named two Karimova associates, Gayane Avakyan and Rustam Madumarov, as owners of shell companies “beneficially owned by GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL A.”
Internet users in Uzbekistan look set to suffer an indefinite continuation to the poor service they have been enduring for the past half year or so.
The lingering suspicion is that security services are trying, but struggling, to install cast-iron monitoring mechanisms to keep tabs on users of popular communication software like Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.
State-run Uzbektelecom’s Internet provider division said that the latest decline in the quality of connections would last through to early next month because of maintenance work on the network, Regnum news agency reported on January 6.
The agency said some areas of the capital, Tashkent, might cease to get the Internet altogether.
This has become a routine warning since July, however, and other online providers — Sarkor Telecom, Sharq Telecom, Turon Telecom, ComNet and others — have issued similar statements.
Telecommunications officials have tried to reassure customers that the ultimate aim to all the interruptions in service are to improve quality, but experts are skeptical.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, has speculated that the ultimate cause may be the National Security Services’ desperate efforts to monitor online traffic.
"It looks like they [the security services] have jumbled up all the Internet traffic settings as they try to set up a monitoring system in the main server, where all international traffic goes through,” an Internet security specialist told Ozodlik on condition on anonymity.
Such claims have no longer been subject of speculation since hackers last year leaked reams of correspondence from an Italian company, Hacking Team, which provides Internet monitoring technology to numerous governments, including Uzbekistan’s.
As the festive season approaches, authorities in Central Asia are getting into the spirit of the Grinch with their characteristically joy-killing edicts and bans.
In Tajikistan, the Education Ministry has banned putting up New Years trees in schools, according to a report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi.
"Cutting down Ne Years trees, or putting them up and decorating them, the use of fireworks and pyrotechnics, and giving gifts and fundraising for New Year celebrations by students is strictly prohibited," education minister Nuriddin Said was cited as saying by Radio Ozodi.
Instead of holding celebrations, schools are being encouraged to mount displays, as well literary and sporting events, to celebrate the festive end of year season.
Meanwhile, in the historic city of Samarkand, in Uzbekistan, restaurants and bars have been banned from opening past 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. Local news site Samarkandsky Vestnik also reported on December 15 that authorities have insisted that parties to mark the arrival of the new year should include no more than 400 guests.
“Considering that the New Year is a family holiday and that everybody should celebrate it within their family circle, on December 31 all dining establishments will be closed,” the website reported.
The battle against foreign-flavored features of the festive season are cast as a rearguard action against the creeping influence of nontraditional customs and values.
In earlier years, there has been speculation in Tajikistan of a possible ban on the appearances of Father Frost — the post-Soviet world’s answer to Father Christmas — on state television.
Germany's air base in Termez, Uzbekistan. (photo: Bundeswehr)
Germany has officially left its air base in Uzbekistan, the German embassy in Tashkent has confirmed, officially ending a 14-year military presence in Central Asia.
In October Germany announced that it would be leaving the base by the end of the year and [insert German stereotype] they have. A closing ceremony at the base was held December 11, a spokeswoman for the embassy, Melanie Moltmann, told The Bug Pit.
The closure wasn't officially announced, which is consistent with the extremely low profile that the base enjoyed; German officials almost never spoke about it until it was about to close.
The base, at Termez on the Afghanistan border, was a logistics point for German troops operating in northern Afghanistan. But the two sides got involved in a dispute over the rent: earlier this year Uzbekistan tried to raise the rent to 72.5 million Euros annually, German media reported; just months before Tashkent had secured a new agreement approximately doubling the rent to 35 million Euros a year.
With the German departure, there are now no foreign military bases in Central Asia other than Russian ones. France's small detachment left in 2013, and the U.S. closed down its base at Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, in 2014.
After almost a quarter of century, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has decided it is time to shake up the police force.
The force, he said on December 5 during a speech to mark Independence Day, lacks proper regulation and is as a consequence rife with shoddy practices.
“It is not unusual to come across cases of nonobservance and crude violations of legal norms and provisions and principles of justice, as well as sloppy attitudes among law enforcement and regulatory authorities toward their duties. This is a reality and it is impossible not to notice it,” Karimov said, speaking 24 years after Uzbekistan’s Interior Ministry was formed.
Karimov said he was moved to criticism by the flood of public complaints brought to his attention.
“Over the first nine months of this years, 500 complaints have come in from citizens about the law enforcement officials and regulatory authorities,” he said. “Every fifth complaint concerned the unlawful actions of police officers.”
Karimov was eager to convey the impression that the feedback process is working well, however, and said that 96 percent of complaints registered over the phone had been resolved satisfactorily.
“What do these data tell us? They tell us that complainants had every right to be unhappy with the decisions taken by state bodies,” Karimov said.
The claims may cause jaws to drop even among a rights advocacy community already used to egregious whitewashing.
A recent United Nations Human Rights Committee report on Uzbekistan notes that while torture, for example, remains commonplace throughout the criminal justice system, recourse is rarely an option.
The use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest is becoming rarer, but there were indications that adults are being press-ganged into service this year, the World Bank has said in a report.
While offering hope of improvement, the report published on November 20 evinced disquiet about the harassment of independent harvest monitors — a sure indication authorities remain nervous about damage incurred to the country’s cotton public image in recent years.
The findings were based on observations by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was this year asked to broaden its remit by checking for signs of forced labor.
Claims that child labor is on the wane echoes conclusions from independent campaigners since 2012, when the government banned the practice following a punishing cotton boycott by leading western brands.
“Authorities have taken a range of measures to reduce the incidence of child labor and make it socially unacceptable,” the World Bank said.
The assessment is broadly shared.
Apparent efforts by Uzbekistan to reduce reliance on underage workers prompted the U.S. State Department to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.
The burden of meeting harvest quotas has instead shifted to adults, who are often recruited against their will.
“Large numbers of citizens seem to be willing recruits and see the harvest as an opportunity. But organized recruitment of large numbers of people in such a short period of time carries certain risks linked to workers’ rights, which need further work, and certain indicators of forced labor have been observed,” the World Bank said.