Russia's VimpelCom to pay $835 mn over Uzbekistan bribes

18th February 2016, Comments 0 comments

Russia's VimpelCom has agreed to pay $835 million to settle US and Dutch charges it paid massive bribes to get into the Uzbekistan telecommunications market, the US Justice department announced Thursday.

The huge Russian mobile phone operator, controlled by billionaire Mikhail Fridman, was accused under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) of paying more than $114 million to a "relative" of Uzbek President Islam Karimov between 2006 and 2012 for mobile phone licenses and frequencies.

The Justice Department also said it had moved to seize $850 million in Swiss and other European accounts controlled by the relative that came from bribes paid by VimpelCom, its subsidiary Unitel and other companies doing business in Uzbekistan.

US officials were unwilling to identify the relative involved in the VimpelCom case.

Karimov's eldest daughter Gulnara Karimova was placed under house arrest two years ago as she was probed for corruption.

The settlement includes $167.5 million for the US Securities and Exchange Commission, $230.1 million for the Department of Justice, and $397.5 million to the Public Prosecution Service of the Netherlands.

"VimpelCom made massive revenues in Uzbekistan by paying over $100 million to an official with significant influence over top leaders of the Uzbek government," Andrew Ceresney, director of the SEC's Enforcement Division.

VimpelCom, based in Amsterdam, is the world's sixth largest telecommunications company. Its shares are traded on the New York Nasdaq exchange, subjecting it to SEC regulations.

US officials said their investigation involved authorities in numerous countries, including Switzerland, the Netherlands, latvia, Norway, and others, including a number of countries like the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands known as hubs of banking secrecy and money laundering.

"These cases combine a landmark FCPA resolution for corporate bribery with one of the largest forfeiture actions we have ever brought to recover bribe proceeds from a corrupt government official," said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell.

Caldwell said the fines could have been much heavier but VimpleCom's earned a "discount" for cooperating in the investigation and acknowledging criminal responsibility.

Caldwell said the department's civil complaints seeking the forfeiture of the $850 million in bribery proceeds were also some of the largest ever brought by the department.

The funds, held in accounts in Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium and Luxembourg, were moved through US financial institutions before being deposited in those countries, placing the money under US jurisdiction.

"We think its very important to separate officials from the bribes that they take ... and hit them in their pocketbook," said Caldwell.

The US officials declined to name any figures linked to the cases, suggesting they were still preparing crminal charges on some of them.

Caldwell noted that the bribes paid in the VimpelCom case, by their sheer size, were not likely simply the actions of low-level company operatives.

The announcement Thursday returned the spotlight to Gulnara Karimova, a flamboyant figure who once served as the country's envoy to the United Nations, as well as dabbling in fashion design and pop music.

She was once seen as a successor to her father, a strongman who has led Uzbekistan since 1991.

Anti-corruption group Transparency International ranked the country 166th out of 175 on its "Corruption Perceptions Index" last year, labeling it one of the most corrupt nations in the world.

Karimova "is suspected of receiving more than US$1 billion worth of shares and payments from mobile phone companies in exchange for her influence," the group said in a report last September.

© 2016 AFP

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