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Uzbek Diplomats Break Silence On Swiss Money-Laundering Case

  • Daisy Sindelar

Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Uzbekistan's permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, at the opening of the Golden Cheetah Tashkent Film Forum in September.

Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Uzbekistan's permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, at the opening of the Golden Cheetah Tashkent Film Forum in September.

Uzbek diplomatic officials have offered rare commentary on a Swiss money-laundering case involving four Uzbek nationals with ties to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the Uzbek president.

Responding in writing to a request for information from the Swiss newspaper "Le Temps," the Uzbek Embassy for Switzerland, which is based in Berlin, gave few details about the case but offered speculation about the whereabouts of a missing businessman involved in the investigation.

In the letter, received on October 11, embassy officials accuse the businessman, Bekhzod Akhmedov, of massive fraud and suggest his Russian-based partners have helped him evade arrest.

Akhmedov, in addition to being involved in the Swiss investigation, is at the heart of an ongoing dispute between Uzbek authorities and the Russian mobile-phone operator MTS.

Akhmedov, who served as the head of MTS's Uzbek subsidiary, fled Uzbekistan this summer amid a dispute in which Uzbek officials revoked MTS's license and demanded nearly $1 billion in back taxes after leveling charges of financial wrongdoing.

MTS has accused the Uzbek authorities of making false allegations in order to strip the company of its assets.

Akhmedov's whereabouts is unknown. An Interpol warrant has been issued for his arrest at the request of the Uzbek government.

Globe-Trotting Intrigue

According to the letter from the Uzbek Embassy, a Tashkent court on September 17 found Akhmedov guilty in absentia of fraud and abuse of office.

The letter describes Akhmedov as "having authorized the embezzlement of criminal funds" generated by "illegal activities between 2008 and 2012."

The article in "Le Temps" includes Uzbek authorities' speculation about the whereabouts of a key figure in the case.

The article in "Le Temps" includes Uzbek authorities' speculation about the whereabouts of a key figure in the case.

Specifically, it accuses Akhmedov's subsidiary, Uzdunrobita, of concocting an unspecified hoax worth 24.4 billion Uzbek soms (around $12.5 million). It also accuses Akhmedov of failing to pay a staggering 1.2 trillion soms in taxes into the national budget and of carrying out an "unauthorized" activity that generated a "net profit" of 543 billion soms.

It also charges that large sums of money were sent, under the guise of a monthly salary, to accounts held by Akhmedov at the Moscow Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The letter also offers a detailed itinerary of Akhmedov's alleged travels after leaving Uzbekistan.

Citing the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office, the letter says Akhmedov fled Uzbekistan for Kazakhstan on June 6. From there, he reportedly traveled to Istanbul on June 9 and then moved on to Paris where the letter says he "settled financial problems with his foreign accounts."

From there, he purportedly traveled to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, before finally boarding a flight on June 19 to Moscow -- where, the letter suggests, "he probably remains today."

Embassy officials provide flight numbers for several legs of Akhmedov's alleged globe-trotting and also suggest that MTS authorities helped him travel undetected by providing him with a "green corridor" into Russia, free from scrutiny from customs or other officials.

"Investigations have shown that MTS will not help us establish the truth and is covering up for Bekhzod Akhmedov," the letter says.

Hundreds Of Millions Frozen

MTS, contacted by "Le Temps," denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of Akhmedov, whom it describes as a former employee. The company also declined comment on the allegations in the Uzbek Embassy letter.

Uzbek Embassy officials failed to answer questions from "Le Temps" regarding Akhmedov's Swiss accounts, which are at the heart of the money-laundering investigation under way in Switzerland.

The paper reports that Swiss authorities have frozen some 600 million Swiss francs ($640 million) held in various accounts.

In addition to Akhmedov, the accounts have reportedly been tied to Uzbek nationals Alisher Ergashev, Shohruh Sabirov, and Gayane Avakyan.

Ergashev and Sabirov were arrested in Geneva in late July outside Lombard Odier, the bank where several of the frozen accounts were held. Both men were executives at Coca-Cola Uzbekistan, a company formerly owned by Karimova's ex-husband.

Avakyan is the operator of Takilant, a company at the heart of a parallel investigation under way in Sweden. Swedish prosecutors are investigating whether the partially state-owned Swedish telecommunications firm TeliaSonera illegally paid $320 million into Takilant's offshore accounts in exchange for 3G licenses and access to the Uzbek market.

Bump In The Road

Both the Swiss and the Swedish investigations have raised questions about possible financial connections between the four Uzbek nationals and the presidential daughter, whose personal fortune is estimated at $500 million.

Avakyan is the director of Karimova's Dom Stilya fashion house in Tashkent and is frequently photographed with Karimova.

Property documents obtained this week in France by Swedish journalists also established an explicit link between Karimova and Ergashev -- who is also Avakyan's partner at Takilant.

"Le Temps" reported that the Swiss Attorney General's Office refused to comment on the French documents.

The paper also quoted unnamed members of Geneva's diplomatic community as saying the case was unlikely to implicate Karimova, who as Uzbekistan's permanent representative to the UN in Geneva enjoys diplomatic immunity.

Karimova, 40, is frequently mentioned as a likely successor to her father, Islam Karimov, who is considered the architect of one of the most repressive regimes in Central Asia.

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