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By John Helmer, Moscow

Swiss and French financial police have searched offices or homes in France as part of what the spokesman for the Swiss Attorney-General calls “our Uzbek case”. According to Jeannette Balmer, “perquisitions [searches] have been made in France on our request.” She declines to say when the searches were conducted, the addresses of the premises searched, or the names of the Uzbek targets. A report by Ola Westerberg of the Swedish news agency Tidningarnas Telegrambyra first revealed the French operation on July 2.

According to Westerberg, searches by the Brigade de Recherche et d’Investigation Financière were conducted simultaneously at different French addresses on June 18. The targets, according to Westerberg, were all connected to Takilant, a Gibraltar front company allegedly used to take bribes from TeliaSonera, the Swedish telecommunications group, in return for operating concessions and mobile telephone licences in Uzbekistan. Behind Takilant is alleged to be Gulnara Karimova, the front-running candidate to succeed the current President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, her father. For the runup to the June 18 operation in France, read the archive here.

Russian language reports have repeated the substance of Wetterberg’s story, adding that an anonymous Uzbek source is claiming that Karimova owns one, possibly two apartments in Paris and a villa in St. Tropez, while a reported lover of hers owns a third property near Versailles. BBC despatches in Russian and Uzbek have intimated that these were the properties targeted by the searches. Radio Ozodi, the Uzbek service of the US Government agency Radio Free Europe, has repeated the same claims without adding to their substantiation.

According to a subsequent clarification by Wetterberg, his initial Swedish publication does not confirm that Karimova’s properties were targeted. “We only know for a fact that raids took place as part of the Swiss Takilant investigation, and that Karimova does have properties in France.”

The careful wording of the search disclosure by the Swiss Attorney-General’s spokesman in Bern implies that no evidence, documents, computer records, nor other property were seized by the French at the time of the June 18 operation; and that there has been no French court action to freeze Karimova’s assets in that country. In Switzerland Karimova is an official representative of the Uzbek government and holds diplomatic immunity.

Swiss sources are divided on whether the operation was intended by the French to do as little as possible to discharge the Swiss request; or an escalation by the newly appointed Swiss Attorney-General, Michael Lauber, to prosecute cases of international money-laundering through Switzerland. Lauber took over on January 1, 2012. An informed source reports that the francophone units of the federal Swiss police responsible for this type of investigation were kept out of the French operation. It also appears that the French turned up and handed over no concrete evidence. The spate of US, UK, and Swedish press leaks two weeks later may have been inspired to cause at least as much embarrassment for the investigators as for their targets.

By contrast, says another well-informed Geneva source, the fact of the searches “really means that the Swiss are progressing in their investigations. Do not forget that two people were arrested here in Geneva [July 31, 2012 — see here], which is quite rare in these cases. The new federal attorney-general seems to be willing to take more risks on those cases, even though the new code adopted in Switzerland few years ago put the whole cost of the procedure on the taxpayers if the investigators prove to be wrong –a powerful deterrent in this country.”

According to the Swedish and Swiss media, the investigators in the two countries have acted on orders of the Stockholm District Court to freeze Takilant bank accounts and other assets totalling 5.7 billion Swedish krona ($854 million), including 200 million krona ($30 million) in Sweden.

Russian media interest in the case subsided quickly after Karimova ousted Vladimir Yevtushenkov’s Mobile Telesytems (MTS) from its operating concession in Uzbekistan last June; at the time it was the leading mobile telephone provider in the country. Sistema, the Yevtushenkov holding which owns MTS, has since written off $546 million in operating and asset losses, and for a brief time the group publicly fulminated against Karimova. A tipoff last July at the Swiss bank Lombard Odier, which led to the freeze on Takilant’s accounts and the arrest and imprisonment of two of Karimova’s henchmen, may have originated with Yevtushenkov.

One Russian source believes Yevtushenkov was also the source for Swedish publication of records of Karimova’s instructions to lawyers regarding TeliaSonera, plus a film of Karimova and Alisher Usmanov at a wedding party in Tashkent last September. Most sources believe the documents and the film came from a non-Russian source camouflaged to appear to have come from Moscow.

So far the Russian government has done little to stoke opposition to Karimova as the successor to her father. Reports that a Moscow court has ordered the arrest of an apartment Karimova owns in Moscow are false.

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