Swedish Telco Teliasonera has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to a young Uzbek woman in exchange for telecom licenses in Uzbekistan, according to Mission: Investigate, the Swedish public television current affairs program. The report discloses that the woman is very close to the Uzbek dictator’s daughter Gulnara Karimova, and is also the focus of a major money laundering investigation recently launched by Swiss authorities. Swiss investigators have already frozen large assets suspected of belonging to Karimova.
This past spring Mission: Investigate disclosed how Teliasonera secretly cooperated with the security services in some of the world's harshest dictatorships. One of the countries where the telecommunications company allowed security services to connect surveillance equipment to their network was Uzbekistan, where the Karimov family has ruled with an iron fist for more than 20 years.
When the telecom giant, which counts the Swedish government as its largest shareholder, established itself in Uzbekistan six years ago, the company connected with what it call a "local partner.” Since then, Teliasonera has paid out the equivalent of 2.2 billion Swedish crowns, (US$320 million) to the partner, a Gibraltar-based company called Takilant Ltd., in exchange for 3G licenses and series of Uzbek phone numbers..
The sole owner of the company, who, according to Teliasonera, has received the payments is Gayane Avakyan, a young Armenian woman from the fashion scene in Uzbekistan. Research by Mission: Investigate now shows that she has close links to the Uzbek dictator’s daughter Gulnara Karimova. Avakyan has also become the centerpiece of a large money laundering investigation in Switzerland.
The investigation started in July of this year when two persons close to the dictator’s daughter were arrested outside the offices of the renowned Swiss private bank Lombard Odier in Geneva. Although the investigation started only recently, investigators have frozen assets suspected of belonging to Gulnara Karimova that are in excess of all funds frozen in Switzerland in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Gulnara Karimova, the oldest daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, pursues many careers: pop star, professor, diplomat, fashion icon – and a businesswoman with great influence over the Uzbek business world.
In practice she is one of the regime’s most influential people. Formally she has no power over the telecom market in Uzbekistan, but according to multiple sources she wields the single largest influence over telecom licensing and who benefits from the lucrative contracts. In documents from the U.S. State department leaked to Wikileaks, she is described as a "robber baron."
Telecom licenses are handed out by Uzbek authorities and cannot be traded, according to legal experts in Uzbekistan. Still, Teliasonera has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to a small, one-woman company in a tax haven to get the licenses. According to Teliasonera this is a normal process.
Representatives of the company have repeatedly defended the deal and claimed that they scrupulously have investigated its local partner Takilant and Gayane Avakyan, and that she has no connection to the Karimov regime.
But when Mission: Investigate examined the financial reports Takilant submitted to Gibraltar authorities, there is no trace of the hundreds of millions of dollars paid out by Teliasonera in cash and shares.
Former fraud investigator Lars Hammar, who has long experience in international economic crime cases, says the circumstances of the deal should ring alarm bells. “It can look as if the money has gone to the president's daughter,” he warns. “And I think every Swede understands that in that case this is not a clean deal.”
In spite of Teliasonera paying out hundreds of millions of dollars to Takilant and Gayane Avakyan, the company asserts that no one in the management has met Gayane Avakyan. In a TV interview, Cecilia Edström, the firm’s senior vice president and head of group communications, responded to questions from Mission: Investigate:
Gayane Avakyan and Takilant are now the focus of a large money laundering investigation in Switzerland. Teliasonera is part of that investigation, as is Takilant. Have you bribed Gulnara Karimova and the Uzbek regime?
- We have paid money to a company which was the rightful owner of frequencies and licenses in Uzbekistan that we need to run our telecom operations in the country. We have examined that the person who represented the company had a mandate to do so, but apart from that we have not been able to ascertain if there were any other persons behind the company and if so who they were.
Why did you pay 2.2 billion Swedish crowns to an off-shore company in Gibraltar for a license that you received from the government of Uzbekistan?
- They had an asset that we needed to run our operations and we followed the legal process, the formal process in Uzbekistan, where you cannot transfer licenses between owners[D1] but you have to hand them back to the authorities who then in their turn issue them to another operator.
So you pay an off-shore company 2.2 billion Swedish crowns and then you get a license from the authorities?
- We paid the rightful owner of the licenses and the formal process is that the licenses go back to the authorities who then issue them again.
Sven Bergman, Joachim Dyfvermark and Fredrik Laurin /SVT
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