Crossroads Asia

Uzbek Activists Urge Caution in Returning Gulnara’s Ill-Gotten Gains

As reports stir of pending asset returns, a group of activists urge international stakeholders to be cautious in how they proceed.

Uzbek Activists Urge Caution in Returning Gulnara’s Ill-Gotten Gains

A group of Uzbek civil society activists issued a statement last week to call attention to the murky process of returning Gulnara Karimov’s ill-gotten gains to Uzbekistan. The activists urged those negotiating the return of Karimova’s assets — accrued through bribes paid to the daughter of late President Islam Karimov for access to the country’s telecommunications market and since seized by several governments — to act responsibly. Stressing that Karimova’s trials and convictions lacked transparency and due process, the activisist said, “Responsible repatriation of Gulnara Karimova’s assets requires a retrial.” They also noted that the return of any assets to Uzbekistan should come after significant anti-corruption reforms are enacted in the country and that governments currently holding frozen assets ought to be guided by human rights law in negotiating the return of funds to Tashkent. 

Last month, the Karimova matter rocked back into headlines with a surprising announcement on June 23 that she had agreed to give the state back $1.2 billion. As Eurasianet reported, the Uzbek government denied any such payment; the government did state, however, that in 2018 it raised $20.2 million from Gulnara’s property, including the sale of jewelry and foreign currency and had accrued $11.8 million more so far in 2019 from sale of her assets in Uzbekistan. In the same announcement, Gulnara said she had rescinded her claim to $131 million frozen in foreign banks. But, as Eurasianet reported, the Attorney General of Switzerland issued a statement the next day that mentioned a similar sum — $133 million — as an additional forfeiture. The Swiss statement mentions the conviction of a “relative of Gulnara Karimova” who was ordered to pay a hefty fine, plus the $133 million forfeiture.

There are various sums afloat in other jurisdictions — including France and the United States — but the reality remains that the dollar signs and diplomacy are a murky, confusing mess. I’ll repeat a sentence I wrote two years ago that rings as true today as it ever did: “The problem with unraveling grand corruption is that once you begin to tug on a string — a specific individual, perhaps — the whole tapestry could come off the wall.” Given that many Karimova-era officials remain in positions of power (make no mention of the 13 years President Shavkar Mirziyoyev served as prime minister), there’s a deep-seated hesitation to giving Karimova a platform or a microphone. Oh, the skeletons she could conjure. 

First among the Uzbek activist’s list of suggestions is an open, fair trial for Karimova. To be sure, it’s not suggested out of sympathy for Karimova. While there have been a number of Karimov-era government officials to fall out of favor, others have transitioned into the new era intact. In an open trial of Karimova, a whole host of skeletons could come dancing out of closets across the government. 

The activists also noted that while Karimova’s representatives claim she has been mistreated in prison and subject to harsh conditions, her detention “should not be reviewed or addressed distinct from a review of the conditions for all prisoners in that colony and all the other prison facilities in the country.” Karimova’s lawyer has, at times, had difficulty gaining access to his client — a problem not unfamiliar in Uzbekistan when it comes to highly sensitive cases. The activists state clearly that they are against releasing Karimova prior to a new trial.

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Other suggestions include urging authorities in Switzerland, France, and the United States to block transferring any money or assets back to Uzbekistan until such a time that sufficient anti-corruption reforms are enacted. Returned assets should be used “exclusively for public interest” and governments should work to ensure that they “ do not fall back into corrupt channels.”

The signed Uzbek activists are wary of moving too soon to return funds to the government: “We cannot rely on promises of reform or even the early adoption of anti-corruption laws. In Uzbekistan, many progressive laws have been adopted and are simply not implemented in practice. Structural changes in norms and practices, not progress on paper, must rightly be a key condition for repatriation.”