U.S. indicts Gulnara Karimova in Uzbek corruption scheme

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has indicted the daughter of the late president of Uzbekistan on corruption charges for allegedly using her official position to solicit more than $865 million in bribes from three telecommunications companies, the Justice Department said on Thursday.

Gulnara Karimova, working with telecoms executive Bekhzod Akhmedov, allegedly asked for bribes from Russia’s MTS and VimpelCom Limited (now called VEON Ltd and based in Amsterdam), and Sweden’s Telia Company AB , between around 2001 and 2012 in exchange for using her influence with the Uzbek telecoms regulator to ensure the three were awarded licenses to operate in Uzbekistan.

Karimova, a former Uzbek government official who has not been seen in public for several years, laundered the money through the U.S. financial system, the Justice Department alleged.

Also on Thursday, the Justice Department and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said MTS agreed to pay $850 million to settle the bribery investigation related to its past business in Uzbekistan. The MTS agreement in the latest in the long-running investigation into corruption within the Uzbekistan telecoms industry.

“This is the third installment in a trilogy of cases arising from an almost $1 billion bribery scheme that reached the highest echelons of the Uzbekistan government and was orchestrated by some of the largest telecommunications companies in the world,” Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, said in a statement. His office said the case was one of the largest Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) bribery schemes ever charged.

“By funneling multimillion-dollar bribe payments through the U.S. financial system, the companies and individual defendants corruptly tried to tip the global economy in their favor and line their own pockets,” Berman said.

VimpelCom and Telia already agreed to settle related bribery accusations with U.S. authorities in 2016 and 2017, respectively. VEON and Telia did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Justice Department also indicted Akhmedov, the former chief executive of Uzdunrobita LLC, a subsidiary of MTS, Russia’s largest mobile telecommunications company.

Karimova’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Reuters was unable to contact Akhmedov or his lawyer.

The United States does not have an extradition agreement with Uzbekistan.

Karimova, a businesswoman who also recorded pop songs, dropped from public view after an apparent falling-out with her father, Islam Karimov, who ran the Central Asian nation for 27 years before his death in 2016.

She was placed under house arrest in Uzbekistan in 2015 for embezzlement and extortion. On Wednesday, prosecutors said a court ordered that she serve the remainder of her sentence in prison.

Uzbek authorities have been seeking to freeze Karimova’s assets, including in Switzerland, Britain, France and a string of other countries. The prosecutor general’s office said in 2017 that she was still under investigation for other crimes.

Mobile TeleSystems PJSC, also known as MTS, quit the Uzbek market in 2016 after coming under scrutiny from U.S. authorities as part of a broader investigation into telecom firms’ operations in Uzbekistan.

MTS said in a statement that resolving the investigations was in the company’s “best interests” and that its “anti-corruption compliance framework” was in line with international best practices since 2012.

Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Chris Sanders; editing by Susan Thomas, Sonya Hepinstall and Leslie Adler