Uzbek Asset Return Network publishes a ‘Special Issue Series’

10 December 2020 –

On the International Anti-Corruption Day, the Uzbek Asset Return Network (UARN) has released a special issue briefing paper series analysing the challenges, concerns and opportunities in the international return of assets linked to Gulnara Karimova to Uzbekistan.

Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the former Uzbek President Islam Karimov, has been accused of receiving bribe payments from three telecommunications companies (MTS, Telia and VimpelCom) totalling more than USD 865 million.

Criminal cases against Karimova are reportedly ongoing in various countries including Belgium, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States.

UARN Report Summary

This Special Issue Series by the UARN is divided into six briefing reports and an introductory report. It begins by analysing the risks and opportunities in the asset return process to Uzbekistan looking in particular at the recent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Switzerland and Uzbekistan to return the first tranche Karimova’s corrupt assets to Uzbekistan. The series also highlights the responsibilities of asset returning states in ensuring that confiscated assets are returned and reused to benefit the first victims of corruption – the citizens of the country they were stolen from. To achieve this, confiscating countries must put in place and robustly enforce, appropriate asset recovery legal frameworks that fulfil this collective mandate with integrity. In order to ensure the responsible return of assets and its monitoring, the rights and protections for independent civil society and media must be guaranteed. As Umida Niyazova, Executive Director for Uzbek Forum for Human Rights notes “given the most recent worrying attempts to silence critical reporting by the Uzbek authorities, the media cannot be relied upon to monitor the asset return process sufficiently.

Independent civil society in Uzbekistan also remains severely constrained and lacks the resources or capacity to scrutinise how funds will be managed and disbursed. Nadejda Atayeva of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia adds, ‘reality proves the Uzbek authorities frequently use threats against independent journalists and activists to suppress dissent. Taking into consideration the risks for independent activists and critics, including the risk of imprisonment on fabricated charges and the use of torture and cruel and inhuman treatment, their ability to effectively and independently monitor the asset return process to ensure accountability and transparency is virtually non- existent.’

The UARN points out that despite a change in government in Uzbekistan and moves towards greater liberalisation and openness, Uzbekistan still ranks 153rd out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Uzbek and international civil society have therefore been advocating for implementing a responsible asset return framework. As Sara Brimbeuf, Asset Recovery Lead at Transparency International France notes, ‘the MoU, if respected and effectively implemented, could potentially set an international benchmark for responsible asset return and should inspire other countries including France to adopt a similar approach, enshrining the principles of integrity, transparency and accountability into their legislation’. Laure Brillaud, Senior Policy Officer at Transparency International EU adds ‘the bilateral approach in cases involving multiple jurisdictions is not the most effective way to operate. The Gulnara Karimova case is a textbook case where many EU countries are involved and where it would make a lot of sense to have a system guiding asset recovery that is coordinated and harmonised at EU level.’

Whilst the recent Swiss-Uzbek Memorandum of Understanding made a range of commitments including the involvement of civil society as well as the incorporation of transparency and accountability mechanisms – all of which have welcomed by civil society – it remains to be seen how this will be operationalised. Professor Kristian Lasslett describes the MoU as ‘a historic document’, though cautions ‘our research into the Mirziyoyev government’s management of domestic assets seized from the Karimova syndicate, however, reveals in practice the Government of Uzbekistan has systematically failed to meet these international benchmarks. Responsible return will accordingly require extremely rigorous measures, potentially a third-party mechanism situated in a transparent, well-regulated jurisdiction’.

As Fatima Kanji, UARN coordinator warns, ‘the devil is in the detail. The modality framework needs to move beyond being merely a technical exercise, to one which fully embodies the principles of transparency, accountability, integrity and human rights. Whether there is genuine intent and commitment of the negotiating parties to the pledges made in the Swiss-Uzbek MoU, will be reflected in the forthcoming modality framework and agreed implementation processes which will outline just how the return of Gulnara Karimova’s corrupt assets to Uzbekistan will take place’.

List of Published Papers (in English)

Must stolen assets be returned to corrupt governments? The Uzbek case” – by Richard Messick

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Evaluating the Swiss-Uzbek Return Principles for Stolen Assets Warehoused Abroad” – by Professor Kristian Lasslett, Dilmira Matyakubova and Umida Niyazova (UzInvestigations)

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Can the Government of Uzbekistan Responsibly Manage Seized Assets? A Capacity Assessment” – by Professor Kristian Lasslett and Dr Dawid Stanczak (UzInvestigations and Ulster University)

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Stop the Kleptocrats: The EU must no longer be a safe haven for stolen assets” – by Laure Brillaud, Sara Brimbeuf and Matilde Manzi (Transparency International EU and Transparency International France)

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Can Uzbekistan’s Media be Relied Upon to Scrutinize the Safe Return of Gulnara Karimova’s Assets?” – by Umida Niyazova and Lynn Schweisfurth (Uzbek Forum for Human Rights)

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