The anti-corruption unit of the Swedish prosecutor’s office has launched a probe into a deal by TeliaSonera in Uzbekistan following allegations of money laundering, the Swedish telecom operator said Wednesday.
A program on Swedish Television, the country’s public broadcaster, last week alleged TeliaSonera had been involved in money laundering in relation to the acquisition of an Uzbekistan wireless data license, spectrum frequencies and number series from Gibraltar-based Takilant Ltd. in 2007, according a Dow Jones Newswires story.
TeliaSonera said that it welcomes the investigation by the prosecutor’s office. It added it had been contacted by Swedish police, and has provided them with information regarding its Uzbek operation.
The company had earlier denied the allegations made in the television program and said it had launched its own investigation into the matter.
TeliaSonera confirms buying assets from Takilant, but the sums of money mentioned are wildly different. The company said that it “concluded an agreement with Takilant Ltd on acquiring 3G licences, and a series of Uzbek phone numbers in exchange for $30 million USD and 26% of Ucell. The purchase of these assets is a necessary condition to begin working and carrying out communications operations in the country.”
Who is behind Takilant?
Gayane Avakyan, an Armenian woman born in the mid-eighties and active in the fashion scene in Uzbekistan, is the sole owner of Takilant, the offshore company, according to the documentary. She is said to be “Googoosha” (Gulnara Karimova), the Uzbek president daughter’s “right hand”.
Takilant has its own subsidiary in London called Panally, the secretary of which is on the board of another company, Odenton Management Ltd, which in turn belongs to Gulnara Karimova’s husband. Another Panally director is a woman called Katja Klyueva, who is also head of “House of Style”, founded by Gulnara Karmiova in 2003. Ms Avakyan also headed House of Style several years ago.
Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an Uzbek political analyst living in France says that Avakyan i”is Gulnara Karimovaґs closest confidante. They are so close that some five years back Avakyan was put in charge of Gulnaraґs financial matters.”
Swiss authorities became aware of Ms Avakyan when they opened a large investigation into suspected money-laundering.
Earlier this year, in July 2012, two citizens of Uzbekistan, who were working at Coca-Cola Uzbekistan, were arrested in Geneva. Coca-Cola Uzbekistan is also part of Ms Karimova’s empire, because Coca-Cola Icihmligi Uzbekiston Ltd, Central Asia’s biggest plant, was established by her former husband. As Fergana previously reported, it is the managers of this company that carry out Ms Karimova’s personal financial operations in the West and those arrested were part of Ms Karimova’s “inner circle”.
The arrests were connected to a scandal-filled investigation of large-scale money laundering. Gazeta.ru reported that as part of this investigation, several Uzbek citizens linked to the country’s authorities were arrested on 19 September in Switzerland. According to French publication Le Temps, nearly $600 million were frozen and Romandie.com reports that the money was frozen in several Swiss banks.
Pay the offshore company and get a license
Representatives of TeliaSonera said several times that Takilant has no relations with the authorities of Uzbekistan. However, Cecilia Edström, TeliaSonera Senior Vice President and Group Communications Manager, practically confirmed the $320 sum. Here is a fragment of the interview:
Gayane Avakyan and TeliaSonera are at the centre of a money-laundering investigation in Switzerland. TeliaSonera is just as involved in the investigation. Did you bribe Gulnara Karimova and the Uzbek authorities?
Cecilia Edström: We paid the company which was the rightful owner of the frequencies and licenses, in order to begin our own operations in Uzbekistan. We checked that the person representing the company had the right to do this, but we did not manage to clarify whether any other persons were behind the company, and if they did, who they were.
Why did you pay 2.2bn Swedish Kronas ($320 million) to the Gibraltar offshore company for a license you are getting from the government of Uzbekistan?
C.E.: The assets that were necessary to start operations belonged to another company and we used legal means, which are accepted in Uzbekistan. Owners cannot buy licenses from each other, they must return the licenses and numbers to the Uzbek government, which in turn makes them available to the new operator.
So you paid an offshore company 2.2 Swedish Kronas and then got the license from the Uzbek authorities?
C.E.: We paid the legal owner of the license. This is a formal process: the licenses were returned to the Uzbekistan authorities, who then gave them to us.
It is worth noting that in the reports presented by Takilant to the Gibraltar authorities, and carefully studied by journalists, do not contain a single mention of the large sums paid by TeliaSonera in cash and security papers.
Gulnara Karimova and Gayane Avakyan at Paris Fashion Week in 2012. Photo by © Getty Images
Former investigator Lars Hammar, who has many years of experience in investigating financial crimes, said that these circumstances arouse suspicion. “It can all look like the money went to the president’s daughter. And I think that every Swede understands that this while thing is not clean.”
Uzbek lawyers have explained that telecommunications licenses are given out by the Uzbekistan authorities and cannot be sold. The president’s daughter has no formal connection to the country’s telecommunications market, but the documentary’s authors concluded that it is her who regulates the licences and decides who gets the income from profitable contracts. The US State Department’s confidential reports published by Wikileaks, say that people call the president’s daughter “a robber baron”.
The Swiss authorities are investigating the links between TeliaSonera and Takilant, according to the documentary. Nobody from TeliaSonera has yet said that the payments to the Gibraltar company were part of a money laundering scheme. “We would have never done that”, says TeliaSonera chairman Tom von Weymarn.
Tom von Weymarn
TeliaSonera prefers to work using unspoken rules established in their country of operations. The company was accused to working with security services in CIS countries by journalists in April 2012. The media had uncovered that TeliaSonera gives the authorities’ strongmen information on calls made by their clients (including journalists, the opposition, activists and ordinary citizens) without adhering to the existing legal procedures. Also, the security services are said to have real time access to the voices and data of those on the TeliaSonera network and can get full information on anybody’s correspondence, calls, location and movements. At the time, the company announced that it has to adhere to the rules where it operates.
Fergana would like to thank its Swedish colleagues for their information and supports them in their investigation. The information agency hopes that the truth about the dubious deals made by European companies with people from the Uzbek president’s inner circle will emerge soon.
TeliaSonera has paid out billions to a sole proprietorship in Gibraltar, owned by a woman from the Uzbek fashion scene in exchange for mobile phone licenses in Uzbekistan. Mission examination can now reveal that the woman standing very close to the Uzbek dictator’s daughter and that Swiss authorities launched an unprecedented economic crime investigation where the woman, her company, the dictator’s daughter and TeliaSonera included. Prosecutors have already frozen accounts with very large amounts are suspected to belong to the dictator’s daughter.
This spring could Assignments examination reveal how TeliaSonera secretly collaborated with the security services in some of the harshest dictatorships. One of the countries where they let in the security services in their own switchboards were Uzbekistan, where the family Karimov rules with an iron fist for 20 years.
When telecom giant TeliaSonera, the Swedish government as the largest shareholder, established in Uzbekistan six years ago they released into what was called “a local partner.” For the partner, the Gibraltar-based company Takilant Ltd, TeliaSonera has since been paid out over 2.2 billion in exchange for 3G licenses and telephone lines in Uzbekistan.
The owner of the company, which, according TeliaSonera is the one who received the money, is a young woman from the fashion world in Uzbekistan, Gayane Avakyan. Assignment review-mapping now shows that she has strong ties to the Uzbek dictator’s daughter Gulnara Karimova and Avakyan is the central figure in a gigantic financial crime investigation in Switzerland.
The investigation started in July this year when two people standing near the president’s daughter was arrested outside the venerable bank Lombard Odiers office in Geneva, Switzerland. So far, investigators freeze large amounts in Swiss accounts suspected to belong to the dictator’s daughter Karimova. Although the investigation is still in its infancy, has already seized larger amounts than is the case in all investigations against the dictators who fell in the Arab Spring.
The dictator Islam Karimov’s eldest daughter Gulnara Karimova has many faces: a pop star, a professor, diplomat, fashion icon – is a business woman with great influence. In fact, she is one of the regime’s most powerful people. Formally, she has no power over the country’s telecom market – Gulnara Karimova but singled out as the one who controls and shoes on the lucrative telecommunications contracts.
In documents leaked from the American Foreign Service via WikiLeaks described her as a “robber baron” and according to consistent sources, she is the one to approve who can establish themselves in the Uzbek market.
It is also the only Uzbek authorities may grant licenses – still TeliaSonera has paid out billions of dollars to a small, private company in a tax haven to get over licenses – according to TeliaSonera’s a perfectly normal process.
Group representatives have repeatedly defended the deal, saying that it carefully examined its local partner – and that this has no connection to the regime. But when orders audit finds Takilant partner in the tax haven of Gibraltar and a closer look at the parts of the report that is public is not a trace of the 2.2 billion that TeliaSonera paid in cash and shares.
The former detective inspector Lars Hammar, with many years experience of major economic crime investigations, believes that the warning bells ringing immediately when he sees layup.
– It may well indicate that this money went to the president’s daughter. I think every single Swedish understands that when it is not sound business behind, says Lars Hammar.
Although TeliaSonera paid billions to Takilant Ltd and Gayane Avakyan state company for Mission examination that none of the group management even met Avakyan.
Gayane Avakyan Takilant and is now the focus of a major police investigation Switzerland as regards money laundering. These include TeliaSonera, which include Takilant. Have you bribed Gulnara Karimova and denuzbekiska regime?
– We have paid money to a company that was the rightful owner of frequencies and licenses in Uzbekistan that we needed to operate telecom operations in the country. We have investigated that the person who represented the company had a mandate to do so and, in addition, we have not been able to substantiate whether there were any other people behind or who they were, says Cecilia Edstrom, Communications Director at TeliaSonera.
Why did you pay 2.2 billion for an offshore company in Gibraltar for a license you get the Uzbek authorities?
– They had an asset we needed to conduct our business and we followed the legal process, the formal process in Uzbekistan, where one can not transfer licenses between owners but must return them to the authorities who then in turn issue them to another operator, says Cecilia Edström.
So you pay an offshore company 2 billion and then you get a license from the authorities?
– We paid the rightful owner of the licenses and the formal time is that the licenses then goes back to the authorities who then issued the licenses again, says Edstrom.
Mission review has sought Gulnara Karimova and Gayene Avakyan for comment through multiple channels. They have not come back with a comment.