The fate of the disgraced daughter of the late Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, has been shrouded in mystery since the Uzbek authorities detained her in 2014, after she was embroiled in an international telecom bribery scandal.
However, the Uzbek Prosecutor General's Office said on July 28 that Karimova is in custody, as she was sentenced in 2015 to five years of “restricted freedom” for embezzlement, extortion and tax evasion.
In total, the prosecutor’s office said Ms Karimova and her associates had stolen $1.6bn, €26mn, and UZS1.27tn ($311mn) which roughly adds up to $2bn.
The telecom scandal involved Nordic TeliaSonera, Russian VimpelCom and MTS, all of which were accused of bribing entities connected to Karimova to win licences to operate 3G and 4G services in the Uzbek mobile market. VimpelCom was fined $795m by the US and Dutch authorities for the bribes it paid in Uzbekistan and Telia agreed on a $1bn settlement. Moreover, the Panama Papers implicated Karimova’s inner circle, indicating her imprisoned boyfriend Rustam Madumarov's companies were used to launder her money.
Investigations concerning Karimova are ongoing, with one of the latest cases being Geneva-based Lombard Odier bank. Another probe involving around CHF800mn seized in Switzerland suspects the money is connected to Karimova’s bribery scheme. The probe has “sprawling ramifications” for the Netherlands, Sweden and France, the Wall Street Journal reported in January.
Karimova, 45, once enjoyed the life of a high-profile socialite, who was also seen as a potential successor to her father. Her life involved a myriad of activities including fashion design, poetry and pop music. However, as she disappeared from the public eye, many rumours and oddities concerning her fate have emerged, including a fake Twitter account. To top it off, she made no appearance at her autocratic father’s funeral in September.
The latest mentions of Karimova’s fate included unproven reports from November that Karimova had been killed by poisoning and buried in a cemetery near Tashkent. Then the Wall Street Journal article cited Grégoire Mangeat, chairman of the Geneva Bar representing Karimova in the Swiss probe, as saying that the first Uzbek president’s eldest daughter was alive and in good health though her security was not guaranteed.
“She is confined to a small annex at her former house in the centre of Tashkent,” Mangeat told the newspaper. Mangeat’s main concern was that she had limited opportunities to defend herself, since allowing her to familiarise herself with court documents was a laborious process. During his visit to Tashkent along with Swiss prosecutors, they were only allowed to meet with Karimova for a combined 23-hour interrogation.
According to leaked US diplomatic cables posted by the WikiLeaks website, the tightly controlled Central Asian nation has frequently characterised Karimova as “a greedy, power-hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people - or anyone else who stands in her way”.
Yet the fact that Karimova fell from favour with her father long before his death excluded her from the list of Karimov’s potential successors and she poses no threat to Uzbekistan’s current reformist President Shavkhat Mirziyoyev. Moreover, Karimov’s widow, Tatyana Karimova, and his younger daughter, Lola Tillyaeva-Karimova, have not faced any scrutiny and have not been perceived as posing a political threat to Mirziyoyev, who has been consolidating his power by sidelining some elites, including a member of his ruling team.
Considering Mirziyoyev’s absolute power, which allowed him to release a number of political prisoners, it appears keeping Karimova out of the view of the public is a matter of either personal preference or general obliviousness, rather than a political decision.
Taking into account multiple previous reports pointing at Karimova’s house arrest and only one report rumouring her death, the authorities are most likely not lying or trying to cover anything up.