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U.S. Demands Uzbek Leader's Daughter Turn Over $550 Million

Gulnara Karimova in 2010
Gulnara Karimova in 2010

WASHINGTON -- U.S. prosecutors said the daughter of Uzbekistan’s president and several associates failed to comply with a court order to turn over more than $500 million held in Swiss banks as part of a long-running money-laundering investigation.

The claim, made in an April 21 letter to U.S. federal court in Manhattan, names Gulnara Karimova for the first time in publicly available U.S. government documents. She is the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president, Islam Karimov.

Others named include her business associate Gayane Avakyan and Rustam Madumarov, who has been identified as her boyfriend.

The letter was the latest chapter in the saga of Karimova, who used to be a flashy socialite, fashion designer, pop singer, and ambassador to United Nations agencies in Geneva.

At one time, she was viewed as a possible successor to her aging father.

In 2013, reports emerged first in Swedish media that Karimova had used her position to serve as a gatekeeper for international telecom companies looking to invest in Uzbekistan. As Central Asia’s most populous nation, it was considered a fast-growing market for mobile services.

The reports ultimately led to criminal investigations in Sweden, the United States, Switzerland, and elsewhere, focusing on companies like TeliaSonera, VimpelCom, and MTS, whose shares or depository receipts trade on U.S. stock exchanges.

In the April 21 letter, prosecutors from the U.S. Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section asked the court to declare Karimova and the others in default of a February request seeking the forfeiture of $550 million held in Swiss bank accounts.

The letter, which was first reported by Bloomberg, asks the court to hold Karimova and the others responsible for turning over the funds.

One of the companies named in the filing is Takilant Ltd., which officials have said was run by Avakyan but controlled by Karimova. In March 2015, U.S. officials asked Scandinavian bank Nordea to freeze $30 million in funds linked to Takilant.

Gulnara with her father, President Islam Karimov

In September 2014, Uzbek prosecutors announced they had arrested several people as part of a “criminal gang,” and named Karimova, Madumarov, and others.

Later reports indicated she may have been put under house arrest, though given her relationship to the president, some Central Asian experts have doubted that was in fact the case.

VimpelCom, a telecom that is controlled through intermediary companies by Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman, agreed in February to pay more than $795 million to resolve U.S. and Dutch money-laundering investigations.

The Justice Department said the VimpelCom case was the largest ever under the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, a six-year-old program that targets U.S.-based assets of people or companies who have laundered or received ill-gotten money.

In addition to legal action in the United States and the Netherlands, where it is headquartered, VimpelCom has faced legal troubles in Norway related to its Central Asian projects.

It’s unclear what other actions U.S. prosecutors may be taking against the other companies who also announced they faced corruption investigations: MTS and TeliaSonera.

MTS is Russia’s largest mobile phone operator, controlled by the Russian conglomerate Sistema, whose majority shareholder is billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

TeliaSonera, a Scandinavian communications giant, has been targeted by Swedish authorities, and four senior executives resigned as a result of various probes. A criminal investigation by Swedish prosecutors may return indictments in that case sometime this year.