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Uzbekistan: Swiss Prosecutor Visit Reveals a Defiant Karimova

One veil of mystery has been lifted from the saga surrounding the daughter of Uzbekistan’s late president with the news that she was recently questioned by Swiss prosecutors in Tashkent.
 
The Wall Street Journal and Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported over the weekend that Gulnara Karimova met with the prosecutors in December at the location in which she is held under house arrest. The reports definitively squashed rumors that began in November claiming Karimova had died as a result of poisoning.
 
Uzbekistan’s change of heart in allowing Swiss prosecutors to meet with Karimova indicates that authorities in Tashkent still hope to claw back frozen assets in foreign bank accounts that are believed to be the gains of shadowy schemes allegedly engineered by the late president’s daughter. Karimova is a central figure in a scandal involving international telecommunications companies seeking to secure a perch in the Uzbek market.
 
“The main goal of the current regime is to get back the frozen cash still lying abroad. [The funds] are not insubstantial, and are worth the while sacrificing Gulnara for,” journalist and political observer Elparid Hadjayev told EurasiaNet.org.
 
Karimova has been living in a state of limbo since 2014, when she disappeared from public view as Swiss authorities began to probe her business dealings. In the final days before vanishing altogether, Karimova sent multiple messages on Twitter claiming to be the victim of a conspiracy hatched by National Security Service, or SNB in its Russian initials, the successor agency to the KGB.
 
The start of Karimova’s decline came earlier, in October 2013, when the Uzbek Agency for Communications and Information closed four television channels under her control. The stations regularly profiled Karimova and were considered a key element in her presumed design to succeed her father, Islam Karimov, who died last summer.
 
Several Twitter accounts have cropped up in recent months purporting to be run by Karimova, but all have been found to be bogus.
 
The WSJ report cited a Swiss court-appointed lawyer for Karimova, Grégoire Mangeat, as saying prosecutors were allowed to meet with her on December 9-10 and subjected her to 23 hours of questioning.  “She was in relative good health but her security is not at all guaranteed,” Mangeat told the WSJ. “She is confined to a small annex at her former house in the center of Tashkent. She’s banned from communicating with the outside world, be it her children or her own lawyers.”
 
Karimova did not attend her father’s funeral in September, sparking speculation about her whereabouts and fate. Curiously, her younger sister, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, has continued to maintain a public profile and even posted pictures on Instagram earlier this month showing her posting for photos with her husband at the Golden Globes award ceremony in California.
 
Neue Zürcher Zeitung cited Mangeat as saying that the questioning was carried out in the presence of two Uzbek prosecutors and two Uzbek lawyers. Mangeat said that when he tried to intervene, the prosecutors threatened to deny him permission to be present during the questioning. The lawyer described Karimova as being “aggressive and displaying remarkable fortitude,” the Swiss newspaper reported.
 
There is a significant amount of money at stake, spread across bank accounts in multiple jurisdictions. Authorities in the United States in 2015 reportedly asked several European nation to freeze around $1 billion paid to businesses linked to Karimova by international telecommunications company seeking to guarantee operating rights in Uzbekistan. That is believed to include 800 million Swiss francs ($793 million) seized in Switzerland, a figure cited by WSJ.
 
Political analyst Rafael Sattarov told EurasiaNet.org that he believes this new turn of events means some sort of deal has been reached among the elite about how the money would be divided if Tashkent manages to secure its return.
 
“It is likely that the elites have decided on how to split up the frozen funds. Since they let the prosecutors come to Uzbekistan and question Karimova, it means that they are sure that it poses no risk to their interests,” Sattarov said.
 
Uzbek diplomats have reportedly been broaching the possibility of recovering the frozen funds before now. Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov traveled to Washington last January for annual consultations with the State Department. That visit came shortly after lawyers acting for Tashkent began pressing for the release of $300 million through the courts. The $300 million in question are held in Bank of New York Mellon accounts in Belgium, Ireland, and Luxembourg and were frozen by a US Federal Court order in July 2015 at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice.
 
In December 2015, Uzbekistan’s Justice Minister Muzraf Ikramov wrote to the court requesting that the frozen funds be forfeited to Tashkent, in effect arguing that money that benefited an unnamed Uzbek government official mentioned in a US Department of Justice lawsuit — now known to be Karimova — should be returned to Uzbek authorities. 
 
The uncertainty around the money, at the very least, should ensure a semblance of a guarantee to Karimova herself. Exiled political activist and journalist Pulat Ahunov argued that she is unlikely to come to any harm until the matter is resolved. “The new authorities are trying to get a hold of Gulnara’s money, but for that to happen they will have to cooperate with investigators,” Ahunov said.
 
Other figures known to be Karimova associates, and who were also subject of criminal investigations, have also seen a recent improvement in their situation.
 
Mirodil Jalolov was formerly the executive director of Zeromax, a Swiss-based holding company widely believed to be controlled by Karimova. He was arrested in September 2010, but RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik, reported that a court ruled in favor of his release from detention on January 4. It is not certain that Jalolov’s situation is in any way related to developments with Karimova but the court ruling indicates the government is adopting a more lenient approach toward her prior associates.
 
“The process is already under way, and I am certain that once Gulnara Karimova returns the money, all the people jailed in connection with her will be amnestied,” Ahunov said.