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TeliaSonera says Uzbek bribery allegations unfounded

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 8 Jan 2013 09:44 PM
Author: Reuters
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  (Adds Swedish market minister comment)

   STOCKHOLM, Jan 8 (Reuters) -    TeliaSonera <TLSN.ST> said on Tuesday that allegations of bribery related to its purchase of a 3G license in Uzbekistan in 2007 were unfounded after a court released company emails used as evidence by the prosecution. 

   In September, Swedish prosecutors launched an investigation into whether Telia knew that the company it bought its license from was just a front. Telia is undertaking its own probe.

   "We have zero tolerance against corruption and we are confident that the investigations will show what has really occurred," Telia said in a statement. 

   Telia, partly owned by the Swedish state, has said it only negotiated with the owner of the license, a Gibraltar-registered firm called Takilant, and that its due diligence could not dig up who stood behind that company.

   However, one email released by the court from an executive of the Telia subsidiary that negotiated the purchase of the license, names the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov as a partner in the deal. 

   "It is hard to reconcile the submitted email traffic with Telia's public statements that it lacked knowledge of who was behind its Uzbek partners and therefore to whom the money had gone," prosecutor Gunnar Stetler said in a document submitted to the court.

   The money for the deal ended up in overseas bank accounts, not with Uzbek state, Stetler said in the statement.

   In October, a Swedish court agreed to freeze assets of Takilant saying there were grounds to suspect two of its representatives - including its sole director - were guilty of money laundering.    

   The documents were submitted by Stetler who wants to widen the asset freeze.

   On Tuesday, Telia said two of its employees have been served with indictments in conjunction with the preliminary investigation and had been interviewed by police, but it denied any wrongoing.

   Swedish media named one of the Telia employees as Tero Kivisaari, Telia's second in command and head of its Eurasia and Mobility units.    

   On Tuesday, Financial Markets Minister Peter Norman said the Telia employees, who had been identified as suspects by the prosecutor, should take time out from work.

   Telia Chairman Anders Narvinger rejected the call saying in a statement the board would only consider such action if Telia's own investigation into the deal, due to be competed later this month, led to "a strengthening of the degree of suspicion against senior exectives".

   Telia has been under pressure for months over the allegations, but there has been limited impact on its shares, which outperformed the DJ Stoxx 600 European telecoms index <.SXKP> last year.

   While shareholders, including the Swedish government which has a 37 percent stake, have expressed concern, they have been waiting for the conclusions of Telia's own and the prosecutor's investigations before taking any actions.

   Analysts expect the worst case scenario to be Telia's withdrawal from Uzbekistan - which makes up only a fraction of the company's revenues - and the resignation of Chief Executive Lars Nyberg, who has staked his job on the company being exhonorated.

   Nyberg retires from Telia at the end of this year anyway, so the company has been planning for his departure.

   Uzbekistan ranked 170th out of 174 countries in Transparency International's 2012 corruption perceptions index. President Karimov has ruled his gas-rich republic since independence from the former Soviet Union two decades ago.

(Reporting by Simon Johnson)

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