Gulnara Karimova, the Uzbek businesswoman whose activities led to the removal of a number of executives from the top of Telia and Telenor, has talked to prosecutors after being missing for two years.
Karimova, the daughter of Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan who died in September 2016, was thought to have died – some even said murdered by her father.
Now reports in the Neuer Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) of Zürich and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) have revealed she is still in Uzbekistan, under house arrest in the capital, Tashkent, where she was questioned by Swiss prosecutors in December 2016.
More to the point – and perhaps the cause of direct concern to Telia and Telenor – she is reported to be talking. Karimova was the former ambassador of Uzbekistan to the United Nations in Geneva, but has lost her diplomatic immunity.
In October 2016 Telia – formerly TeliaSonera – reported a huge plunge in profits after it was fined $1.4 billion by US and Dutch authorities because of bribes it paid – allegedly to Karimova – to obtain telecoms licences in Uzbekistan.
Lars Nyberg resigned as CEO of Telia in 2013 after admitting the company did not conduct “a sufficiently in-depth analysis” into its Uzbek business partner. CFO Per-Arne Blomquist and other executives were dismissed.
A few months before, in February 2016 VimpelCom agreed to pay $835 million in fines to US and Dutch authorities after accepting bribery charges. Its shareholder Telenor lost both its CEO, Jon Frederik Baksaas, and its CFO, Richard Olav Aa, in the fallout.
Grégoire Mangeat, a Geneva-based lawyer appointed to act for Karimova, said she is “in relative good health but her security is not at all guaranteed", according to the WSJ. She previously hadn’t been seen for two years.
The NZZ has reported that the Swiss authorities have frozen 800 million Swiss francs ($800 million) of Karimova’s assets, and it said the federal prosecutor’s office was in contact with 19 countries, including the US, UK, Ireland, France, Sweden and Hong Kong.
The WSJ said that two Swiss prosecutors questioned her for 23 hours on 9-10 December over money-laundering allegations.
According to the NZZ she was arrested in in Tashkent in February 2014 and again in August 2015 – when her father was still in power. Mangeat told the paper that she “has never been the subject of any proceedings in Uzbekistan”.
But she was questioned by Uzbek prosecutors in military uniform in the presence of the Swiss officials, said the NZZ, quoting Mangeat. “We are only at the beginning of the procedure. It is therefore much too early to comment on the circumstances of any negotiating solution,” he said, adding: “Karimova must also be able to exercise her rights in other countries such as France, the Netherlands or Scandinavia.”
That final comment implies that prosecutors from other countries will have an interest in talking to Karimova. Executives from a number of telecoms companies – and their lawyers – will be watching with interest. Swedish prosecutors began an investigation in 2014.