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MTS Says Employees In Uzbekistan Pressured To Sign False Confessions

  • Richard Solash

Many Uzbeks have had to queue for long periods as they scramble to get new mobile phone numbers following the suspension of MTS's operating license.

Many Uzbeks have had to queue for long periods as they scramble to get new mobile phone numbers following the suspension of MTS's operating license.

Russian telecommunications giant MTS says its employees in Uzbekistan are being harassed "almost daily" by officials and are being forced to sign false confessions that implicate the company in illegal activity.

Michael Hecker, MTS's vice president for strategy, told RFE/RL that employees of Uzdunrobita -- the company's Uzbek subsidiary -- are being subjected to closed-door interrogations for hours on end without any lawyer:

"According to what [employees] tell us later, it is systematic intimidation," he said. "They are shown people in chains paraded [in front of them] and told, 'You're going to end up like this, in chains, if you don't sign this confession.' They are threatening them with bringing drugs to their apartment and then doing a search of their apartments -- and all the usual pattern and program of intimidation. [This is] a violation of not only Uzbek criminal laws and civil laws but also of international human rights."

Hecker also says several employees' passports have been seized.

Uzdunrobita is Uzbekistan's largest mobile phone provider. It had enjoyed years of growth and a 40 percent market share of the country's 25 million mobile phone subscribers before the current dispute.

The company's operating license was suspended for 10 days on July 17. Authorities later extended the suspension to three months amid an array of government charges -- including embezzlement, fraud, and other financial crimes.

Millions Without Service

Millions of Uzbek customers were sent scrambling to find an alternative mobile phone service provider from among four firms that are struggling to fill the gap.

Most recently, prosecutors charged Uzdunrobita with violating antimonopoly, consumer protection, and advertising laws. MTS denies any wrongdoing.

Private foreign companies operating in Uzbekistan also have been investigated by the government in recent years.

In several cases, Tashkent has ended up with control over most of the assets of those firms. Foreign investors accuse Uzbekistan's ruling elite of orchestrating those moves.

Uzdunrobita was owned by Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan's authoritarian President Islam Karimov, until it was sold to MTS in 2004.

Some suspect members of Uzbekistan's elite are trying to seize Uzdunrobita's assets, which have risen in value to nearly $1 billion.

Hecker maintains that "all signs are pointing towards a total, final [asset] expropriation":

"I can speculate tons of things about people close to the president, about family members, about other influential people in the Uzbek ruling class, but that is speculation at the moment that we are not contemplating in a public way yet," he said. "But what we are seeing is the clear misbehavior of the Uzbek governmental authorities -- the prosecutor's office, the regulator -- that are all lined up and orchestrated in a systematic way."

Heavy Fines, Significant Losses

Along with the latest charges, Uzdunrobita has also faced fines of over $80 million and sales losses that Hecker describes as "not insignificant."

The firm's former managing director, Bekhzod Akhmedov, is wanted for alleged financial crimes. He fled before the state took action against Uzdunrobita.

Four middle- and upper-level managers, however, have been in jail for weeks in what MTS says is a violation of due process.

MTS previously told RFE/RL that the detained employees were being pressured into signing false confessions as well.

Hecker says one employee -- a Russian national -- was released under pressure from Moscow.

Continued Russian support would be useful for MTS as it prepares legal challenges to the Uzbek government's actions.

Hecker, who spoke to RFE/RL in Washington, is also trying to drum up U.S. support for the company's case. He says 30 percent of its investors are from the United States.

Uzdunrobita's next challenge comes on August 13 when Tashkent's Economic Court considers prosecutors' demands for all of the firm's licenses to be terminated.
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