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US Asks Sweden to Freeze $30M Linked to Uzbek Corruption Case

  • Mike Eckel

FILE - Gulnara Karimova (L), daughter of Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, stands with a model during China Fashion Week, Oct. 30, 2012.

FILE - Gulnara Karimova (L), daughter of Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, stands with a model during China Fashion Week, Oct. 30, 2012.

U.S. officials have asked Sweden to freeze $30 million in funds held by a Stockholm-based bank, as part of a sweeping multinational corruption investigation centered on the daughter of Uzbekistan’s president, according to documents obtained by VOA.

The March 20 request by the U.S. Department of Justice focuses on a shadowy company called Takilant Limited, which has been linked by European investigators to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

Karimova, who is under house arrest in Uzbekistan in what may be a connected corruption probe, was a glamorous fashion designer and former United Nations ambassador who owned television and radio stations and exclusive nightclubs.

As a socialite, she recorded syrupy pop tunes and filmed videos with French film star Gerard Depardieu. On Twitter, she called herself “poet, mezzo soprano, designer and exotic Uzbekistan beauty.”

Investigations underway in Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, France and the Netherlands focus on shell companies allegedly used by several multinational telecommunications companies to pay bribes and gain access to the lucrative Uzbek mobile phone market.

Two of the companies—VimpelCom and MTS—are the largest cell companies in Russia. Another company—TeliaSonera—is a Scandinavian cell company.

All three companies, whose shares trade on U.S. stock exchanges, have publicly disclosed the investigations by U.S. authorities in Securities and Exchange Commission filings. TeliaSonera has been under investigation by Swedish prosecutors for more than a year.

According to the Justice Department request obtained by VOA, investigators asked Sweden to freeze $30.4 million held in an account in Nordea Bank, a major Scandinavian bank based in Stockholm.

“The U.S. investigation has revealed that Vimpelcom, MTS, and TeliaSonera paid bribes to Uzbek officials to obtain mobile telecommunications business in Uzbekistan and that funds involved in the scheme were laundered through shell companies and financial accounts around the world, including accounts held in Sweden, to conceal the true nature of these illegal payments,” the document obtained by VOA states.

The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission declined to comment on the investigation.

Spokespeople for VimpelCom and MTS also declined comment.

A message left with TeliaSonera’s investor relations department was not immediately returned.

The DOJ document states the Nordea Bank money belongs to Takilant . European investigators have said the company, based in Gibraltar, was run by a woman named Gayane Avakyan, who is a former aide to Gulnara Karimova.

Karimova has already been named as a suspect in a sweeping graft investigation brought by Uzbek prosecutors in September. She has been under house arrest there for several months.

The Prosecutor General’s office said at the time that the investigation stemmed from a probe into an organized crime group led by two men, including one who was known as a close associate and boyfriend of Karimova.

Karimova has denied the allegations.

A report published last month by The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project said Karimova may have used bribery, extortion, and influence-peddling to acquire some $1 billion worth of shares and payments from telecommunications companies.

The organization said documents it has obtained or viewed show "the scale of Karimova's alleged corruption was far wider than has been reported."