Sweden’s famed record for transparency took a hit with the trial of three former executives from telecom giant Telia in a bribery case involving the eldest daughter of late Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov.
Former chief executive Lars Nyberg and two other defendants are suspected of paying $350 million to Gulnara Karimova in return for a mobile-phone license in Uzbekistan and for the “protection” of the Uzbek government.
They were charged after the Stockholm-based company agreed to pay nearly $1 billion in penalties to help settle the years-long corruption probe although the trial is expected to take months, with closing arguments in December and a verdict expected early in 2019.
Telia, which used to be known as TeliaSonera, was caught up in charges over bribery in Uzbekistan along with the Dutch-based VimpelCom, controlled by a Russian-owned holding company, which agreed to pay $795 million to settle cases with the United States as well as The Netherlands.
Karimova, 46, was a socialite, fashion designer, pop singer, and Ambassador to United Nations agencies in Geneva who was seen as a potential successor to her father, who ruled Uzbekistan for 25 years as a near-dictator with a vast sphere of tight control.
She has vanished, with alternating reports she was poisoned and buried in an unmarked grave or is under house arrest, with no word on her whereabouts.
Her father’s reign was criticized by a former British Ambassador as using torture, kidnapping, murder, rape by the police, financial corruption, religious persecution, censorship and other human rights abuses to create an authoritarian state.
In 2015, an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reported that Karimova had taken over US$1 billion in bribes from Scandinavian and Russian telecom companies wanting involvement in the Uzbek market.
“All telecom companies that wanted to do business in Uzbekistan used the same method. They paid Karimova, or her offshore company Takilant, for government decisions and protection,” said prosecutor Gunnar Stetler.
The scandal broke in 2012, when Swedish Television’s (SVT) investigative flagship Uppdrag Granskning (Mission Investigate) together with OCCRP reported on TeliaSonera’s suspicious deals, triggering probes that took six years to complete.
Hans Strandberg an attorney representing the former senior company lawyer, denied any wrongdoing as the defendants were charged with aggravated bribery. ”These were normal business practices. The price was entirely market-oriented. There was convincing information that everything was correct and in accordance with the applicable legislation,” he said, adding that Karimova did not have the authority to grant telecom licenses but that if she was paid off it was extortion and not bribery because was she also a government official.