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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 15 New Delhi March 30, 2019

Gulnara Karimova: From Tashkent Presidential Palace to Uzbek Prison

Sunday 31 March 2019

by R.G. Gidadhubli

On March 9, 2019 the Uzbek judiciary announced punishment of imprisonment to Gulnara Karimova, elder daughter of late Islam Karimov, former President of Uzbekistan, for five years since she has repeatedly violated the Uzbek laws. This hit headlines in the country. Gulnara had the privilege of staying in the presidential palace of Tashkent since Islam Karimov was in power in Uzbekistan for about 27 years since 1989 as the last President of the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan and the first President of the sovereign and independent state of Uzbekistan. Being a smart and dominant person there was speculation that she might become the President of the country. An effort has been made to enquire and analyse briefly about Gulnara Karimova and why she has landed herself in prison from the presidential palace.

First, Gulnara was partly involved in political affairs and was taking advantage of the authori-tarian regime of her father, Islam Karimov. Apart from that, as per reports, the high-flying Gulnara was virtually a business executive and fashion designer. Moreover, she was also engaged in socio-cultural activities being a flashy socialite known for fashion shows and attractive pop-music videos which made her a popular figure among the younger generation in Uzbekistan and possibly Central Asia. Thus Gulnara exploited her influence as the President’s daughter in her multiple activities.

 Secondly, credit needs to be given to Mike Eckel, an expert on post-Soviet and Russian affairs who, on March 8, 2019, elaborated the involvement of Gulnara Karimova in one of the largest inter-national bribery corruption scandals in recent times. As per reports, Gulnara had been involved in bribing and corruption in her dealings with foreign investors and domestic clients with regard to her business activities relating to mobile and internet services for over a decade. She succeeded in her business and minted money and became a billionaire. Mention may be made of her involvement in bribery and corruption activities in Russia’s largest mobile-phone provider known as MTS. She was also associated with bribery cases in VimpelCom and the Scandinavian telecom company that used to be known as TeliaSonera. The Guardian newspaper reported that the Swedish media was aware that Gulnara used her position to serve as a gatekeeper for international telecom companies looking to invest in Uzbekistan. But instead of investing in Uzbekistan, Gulnara was parking her money in European countries and nearly $ 1 billion in assets belonging to Gulnara have been frozen in Swiss and other bank accounts.

Thirdly, what has totally exposed Gulnara was the admission by her former close Uzbek aide, Bekhzod Akhmedov, in her bribery-related activities in Uzbekistan with regard to mobile-phone licenses during the decade 2001-2012, the amount of bribery exceeding $ 865 million. In fact Akhmedov provided these hard facts and explicit details about Gulnara’s business practices since he worked with her and lived in Tashkent, which shows the hard reality of the corruption and bribery committed by Gulnara. Subsequently, Bekhzod Akhmedov left his association with Gulnara in 2012 and is living in exile in Russia.

Fourthly, equally significant is that she conspired to violate US foreign-corruption laws that have been revealed. Gulnara was reported to be dealing with the Moscow-based company MTS, whose shares were traded on US stock exchanges. It is reported on March 7 that the MTS company had reached an agreement with US prosecutors under which it would pay $ 850 million to settle bribery and corruption charges related to its business in Uzbekistan. The seriousness of this case is evident since the US Justice Department has been candid in stating that this is one of the largest bribery schemes under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. It is rather intriguing that even as the US Government was aware of involvement of Gulnara in violation of foreign corrupt practices, it was the first time that Gulnara Karimova was explicitly named, an indication of how deep her criminal liability had become.

Fifthly, it is now known that the Uzbek authorities were aware of the fact that Gulnara was involved in several bribery and corruption cases for more than a decade between 2001-2012 in her dealings with several companies in the USA, Europe and Russia and also in Uzbekistan. The then President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, had adopted his foreign policy of swinging his political and economic interest between Moscow and Washington to promote his national interest and inviting foreign companies and capital. It appears Gulnara seems to have exploited this opportunity for wrong purposes and unfair dealings of bribery and corruption to promote her self-interest. Hence it is a matter of great significance that the Uzbek Government had taken serious steps in this regard. For instance, perhaps on the basis of information, Gulnara was arrested in 2014 by the secret authorities who confiscated all electronics and documents in the apartment and did not allow her even to contact her father, Islam Karimov, President of Uzbekistan, when he was alive; this has been revealed by Gulnara’s daughter, Iman Karimova, who is living and studying in England in her interview to The Guradian paper on March 12, 2019. Gulnara has not appeared in public since 2014. There could be speculation whether Islam Karimov was not in disagreement with the steps taken by the government possibly knowing that Gulnara was engaged in unfair and illegal activities rather than promoting national interest.

Sixthly, in 2015 even during Islam Karimov’s presidency, Gulnara was found guilty and punished for jail term. The Uzbek Prosecutor-General’s Office stated that Gulnara Karimova had at one point been handed a 10-year prison term but that sentence was later reclassified to house arrest and shortened to five years possibly under political pressure. Thus in 2015 Gulnara had been sentenced to five years of “restricted freedom” for several wrong-doings including corruption, extortion, embezzlement, tax evasion by her and her associates in Tashkent. It appears that even afterwards Gulnara had been violating laws again and again for which she has been punished by the country’s highest judiciary in March 2019 leading to her imprisonment.

Unfair Treatment and Trial?

In this background some have raised issues with regard to her treatment and trial. Gulnara’s daughter, Iman Karimova, has, in her interview to The Guardian post, contended that her mother had not been treated fairly. Iman, while revealing several facts and information not known in the past to the public, has, as expected, requested the Uzbek authorities to pardon her and release her from imprisonment.

On March 12, 2019 perhaps not in total agree-ment with the Uzbek judicial process of investi-gation and open arguments and evidences, Gulnara’s Swiss lawyer, Gregoire Mangeat, stated that she was deprived of her right to defend herself and subjected to “constraints, to arbitrary methods, and to massive psychological pressure”. He has even accused that Gulnara was “forcibly removed” from the apartment where she had been held in Tashkent and “taken to an unknown place”. He has urged for fair and open trial for Gulnara. In support of her lawyer’s argument, Gulnara’s daughter has stated that the trial, that resulted in a five-year sentence, lasted less than a day and took place in the kitchen of a house where Gulnara Karimova was being held. These contentions, if true, need justification for fair trial.

As regards the corruption issue, it is rampant and illegal and needs to be punished. But at the same time it must be noted that Gulnara’s case is not an isolated and exceptional one. It is most unfortunate that in all post-Soviet republics there are many politically connected persons and those working in government offices and enterprises who have become billionaires and millionaires engaged in corrupt practices. There are several similar money-laundering cases in the post-Soviet states and parking black money in European countries rather than investing it for much-needed develop-ment of economies and promoting national interest. It is also a fact that a few of them have landed in prisons including Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia.

The present President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoev, the successor of Islam Karimov, is keen to take strong policy measures against corruption to make Uzbekistan business-friendly and promote the economic development of Uzbekistan. He has dismissed thousands of officials who were possibly not efficient and involved in corrupt practices of the kind that landed Gulnara Karimova in prison.    

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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