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Court to widen asset freeze in Telia-linked Uzbek probe

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 22 Jan 2013 14:12 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Court agrees to freeze 1.8 bln SEK of assets

* Says money could otherwise disappear

(Adds detail, background)

   STOCKHOLM, Jan 22 (Reuters) - A Swedish court on Tuesday agreed to freeze up to 1.8 billion crowns ($276 million) belonging to a Gibraltar-based firm suspected of bribery and money laundering in relation to the sale of a 3G licence in Uzbekistan to TeliaSonera <TLSN.ST>.

   Swedish prosecutors are building a case against the Nordic telecoms group, having opened a preliminary investigation last year into allegations it knew the company to which it paid 2.3 billion crowns for its licence was a front.

   TeliaSonera, which is more than one third owned by the Swedish state, strongly denies the allegations and is undertaking its own investigation. Telia CEO Lars Nyberg has staked his job on the company being exonerated.  

   In a ruling on Tuesday, the district court said there were grounds to believe two representatives of Takilant, the Gibraltar-based firm that sold Telia its 3G licence in 2007, had taken bribes.

   It agreed with the prosecutor's request to freeze 1.8 billion of Takilant's assets, saying that otherwise the firm could move the money to where it could not be used to satisfy any possible future claims.

   Lawyers representing Takilant could not immediately be reached for comment. TeliaSonera declined to comment.

   The State Committee for Communication, Informatization and Telecommunication Technologies of the Republic of Uzbekistan could not be reached for a comment by phone or by email.

   The court had already agreed to freeze $30 million in a Swedish bank account belonging to Takilant, saying the two representatives were suspected of money laundering. 

   The court gave prosecutors until Feb. 8 to bring charges against Takilant's representatives.

   Prosecutor Gunnar Stetler is looking into allegations the money for the 3G license ended up in the hands of Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbek president Islam Karimov, and not the Uzbek state.

   Karimova has no official position in the telecoms sector in Uzbekistan.

   Telia has been under pressure for months over the allegations, first aired on Swedish TV. It has also been rebuked by the government and other shareholders for allowing authorities in Azerbaijan, Belarus and Uzbekistan to access its networks to keep tabs on anti-government activists. 

   Telia says it bought its 3G license from Takilant and its due diligence did not show anyone else stood to benefit from the deal. 

   The prosecutor has already notified two Telia employees - including the head of the company's Eurasia division - that they are suspects in the case. 

   Stetler said last week he hoped to bring charges against the two this year. ($1 = 6.5275 Swedish crowns)

(Reporting by Simon Johnson, Editing by Louise Heavens)

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