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In Uzbekistan, MTS Case Gets Ugly

Things aren't getting any easier for MTS in Uzbekistan.
Things aren't getting any easier for MTS in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan’s prosecutor-general is pulling out all the stops in its case against what was the country’s leading mobile provider.

Uzbek authorities recently suspended Uzdunrobita -- a subsidiary of Russian telecoms giant MTS -- accusing the company of nearly every financial crime under the sun. Charges include embezzlement, several counts of fraud, using “shadow structures” to hide profits, and on and on. Now, the Prosecutor-General’s Office is getting personal, publishing pictures of a house (link in Uzbek) in Moscow’s high-end Gorki-8 neighborhood that it claims was purchased by Bekhzod Akhmedov, Uzdunrobita’s former managing director.

Akhmedov fled Uzbekistan before the legal wrangling over Uzdunrobita began and has landed on the Interpol "wanted" list. Sought by Uzbekistan on charges of fraud and money laundering, authorities claim Akhmedov and his associates were pocketing “$5.4 million in their Moscow bank accounts” through a series of scams run through small, regional Uzdunrobita subsidiaries.

The report from the Prosecutor-General’s Office is very precise in its claims, with exact figures on how much Akhmedov purportedly laundered and exactly how he was able to do it. The piece is the latest (incredibly detailed) salvo in what has become a very public conflict.

When suspended on July 17 by the State Agency for Communications and Information, Uzdunrobita was Uzbekistan's leading mobile carrier with a market share of close to 40 percent in the country’s lucrative mobile market. The suspension came shortly after Uzbek authorities arrested several high and mid-level Uzdunrobita officials, including acting managing director Radik Dautov and chief financial officer (CFO) Temirmalik Alimov. In addition to arresting several Uzdunrobita employees, Uzbek regulators said they would commence audits of the company’s financial and operating activities.

In a press statement immediately following the arrests, MTS claimed that its employees were “being pressured by law enforcement officials with no grounds and for the reasons unknown to the company.” Dautov was released from custody on August 1 -- more than a month after he was originally arrested. Speaking with RFE/RL on August 3, MTS spokeswoman Valeria Kouzmenko said that Dautov remained under investigation and was barred from leaving Uzbekistan, while CFO Alimov remains in jail with three other Uzdunrobita officials.

On July 30, the suspension was extended by 90 days (read MTS's reaction).

Kouzmenko said that the detained MTS officials were “under psychological pressure” and being forced to sign documents confessing to crimes under threat from prosecutors that “their houses will be searched and drugs will be found.”

This was documented in a lengthy, strongly worded letter sent by MTS to Uzbek President Islam Karimov on July 30, the day the suspension was extended.

In the letter, which was seen by RFE/RL, MTS claims that nearly all of the procedures used against the company by the Uzbek authorities are in direct violation of Uzbekistan’s constitution and legal codes, including presumption of innocence, illegal arrests of officials, and audits and investigations taking place with no prior notice. The letter also notes that the Prosecutor-General's Office is “conducting other audits using different state organs of Uzbekistan, dealing with currency regulations, sanitary control, and antimonopoly regulations.”

The letter also notes that “mass media outlets controlled by the Republic of Uzbekistan are calling the detained employees of Uzdunrobita ‘members of an organized criminal group who are in criminal agreement with some unknown individuals.’”

MTS’s Kouzmenko said the company's lawyers were doing what they can, but have only limited access to their clients, as Uzbek law dictates that only certain lawyers with a special license can represent such clients.

-- Zach Peterson & RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

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