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Interview: Lawyer 'Cannot Rule Out Crime' In TeliaSonera Deals With Uzbekistan

Biorn Riese of the Mannheimer Swartling law firm, which is leading an independent investigation into allegations that the telecom company TeliaSonera paid millions of dollars in bribes to the Uzbek elite.
Biorn Riese of the Mannheimer Swartling law firm, which is leading an independent investigation into allegations that the telecom company TeliaSonera paid millions of dollars in bribes to the Uzbek elite.
A Swedish lawyer investigating how Scandinavian telecommunications giant TeliaSonera secured deals in Uzbekistan says that "we cannot rule out that crime has taken place." Biorn Riese of the business law firm Mannheimer Swartling was speaking to Farruh Yusupov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

RFE/RL: On February 1, Mannheimer Swartling released the findings of its investigation -- commissioned by TeliaSonera -- into whether TeliaSonera's representatives engaged in bribery or money laundering in connection with its activities in Uzbekistan.

This has come at a time when there is also an ongoing Swedish criminal investigation into TeliaSonera's relationship with its local partner, Takilant, and more broadly whether TeliaSonera paid bribes to secure its mobile-phone license in Uzbekistan in 2007.

What were you looking for in your investigation?

Biorn Riese: The basic question is whether you had a crime committed or not, and there we come to the conclusion that, from the information we have in the investigation, we cannot confirm that bribery or money laundering has occurred. So that is one conclusion.

But we also found out that there was not enough information inside the company, inside TeliaSonera, to take the decision to enter into this joint venture; and the criticism is, really, that if one doesn't know who a counterpart is or how a counterparty has obtained the assets that you acquire, then it is difficult to assure that corruption has not occurred at some step along the way. And I think that is the core of it -- it is a lack of information, and that's what the investigation criticizes.

RFE/RL: The Swedish anticorruption prosecutor Guntar Stetler said on February 1 that "there are substantial suspicions, enough in this case, to believe a crime has been committed." Do you agree with that?

Riese: I think that what we have concluded is that from the information we have we cannot establish that there is a crime, but I have also been very careful in saying that we can't rule it out from the information we have. And I think that also is an important part of it, because, although we cannot establish at this stage that bribery or money laundering has occurred, we cannot dismiss the suspicion of crime expressed in either the media or by the Swedish prosecution authority; and I think that is serious enough.

RFE/RL: What were the sources for your investigation?

Riese: We have interviewed about 35 different sources -- it has been people that work and have worked with TeliaSonera -- and we also have had contact with other people around the company. And we have gone through quite substantial written information -- about 40,000 e-mails and a lot of documentation from [TeliaSonera] board meetings, and agreements, and documents like that.

RFE/RL: In your work, did you take account of the investigative report by Sweden's SVT television that aired in December? The report included interviews with two TeliaSonera executives who said that, in exchange for licenses, the company had to give part of its shares in TeliaSonera's Uzbek subsidiary (today called Ucell) to Takilant, a firm controlled by Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. They also said that some licenses were bought from a firm that was established just two weeks prior to getting those licenses itself.

Riese: Yes, we obviously took those into consideration, and I think you refer to a company called Teleson, a subsidiary of Takilant and though which most -- if not all -- the licenses and frequency transferring were made. So we have gone through the material with the agreements and how these things were carried out, and we have also looked into the different information from different sources with regard to this. And, in summary, it's a difference between doing a transaction in a corrupt country and doing a corrupt transaction.

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