Anti-corruption campaigner implicated in Telia Uzbek bribery scandal

Anti-corruption campaigner implicated in Telia Uzbek bribery scandal

Telia’s involvement in the Eurasia region was marred by a notorious corruption scandal that resulted in the Swedish group pulling out of several markets entirely, along with the departure of several senior executives.

While this turbulent chapter in the operator’s history is now firmly behind it, the newly-disclosed ‘Pandora Papers’ - assembled by UK news outlet The Guardian in cooperation with the BBC - have revealed the identity of a key advisor to Telia and the role he played in the scandal. Mohamed Amersi, described as an “international dealmaker in the telecoms industry”, was paid around US$65m by Telia between 2007 and 2013 in his capacity as a consultant in the Eurasia region.

According to the revelations, in 2009 Amersi advised on structuring a deal that allowed Telia to enter the Uzbekistan telecoms market. The agreement was later revealed as an effective $220m bribe paid to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s then-incumbent president Islam Karimov. Telia has conceded that the transaction amounted to a “corrupt payment”, while Karimova is currently incarcerated in Uzbekistan on charges of corruption, with Swiss and US prosecutors alleging that she solicited bribes worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Amersi’s lawyers have denied that he “knowingly” facilitated illegal activity, claiming that he worked on the deal for just six weeks, acting on the basis that due diligence on the agreement had already been conducted by others so there was “no reason” to think that it could be a bribe. His representatives added that the underlying arrangements for the deal had been implemented in 2007, two years prior to his involvement.

However, separately from his role in advising on the Uzbekistan deal in 2010, multiple sources have raised concerns over Amersi’s six-year tenure as a regional consultant for Telia. These include the operator’s former chief compliance and ethics officer Michaela Ahlberg, who in an interview claimed that there were several “big red flags” over his conduct in the region.

Amersi’s alleged transgressions were outlined in a confidential report commissioned by Telia’s board in 2013 aimed at reviewing its entry into a number of Central Asian markets. While the firm has stated that the report’s findings cannot be considered conclusive, it claims that Amersi “may have…utilised” his fees from Telia to “improperly acquire” regulatory benefits in Kazakhstan. Telia ended its relationship with Amersi later that year.

Representatives for Amersi have stated that while he met with “senior political figures” in Kazakhstan, these were “official occasions” at which Telia executives were present, and which fully complied with Telia’s expenses policy. Amersi’s lawyers refuted suggestions that their client had made “improper or illegal payments” or facilitated attempts to “improperly” obtain regulatory benefits, noting that Amersi has faced no previous allegations of this nature following extensive investigations of Telia’s Central Asian activities.

Telia hired a Swedish law firm to investigate the Uzbekistan scandal, which found that the telecom company had failed to conduct sufficient due diligence on its “local partner” in Uzbekistan – now identified as Karimova. However, the investigation failed to unearth evidence of the bribes - worth more than US$331m – which were paid to Karimova via an intricate offshore arrangement in which she received an upfront GB£30m payment via a Telia subsidiary as well as 26% ownership of Telia’s Uzbekistan unit Ucell, held by a shell company registered in Gibraltar.

US prosecutors allege that in order to enter the Uzbek market and obtain the required operating licences, Telia found it necessary to pay regular bribes to Karimova – including elaborate payment options such as a clause that allowed Karimova’s shell company to sell its shares in Ucell back to Telia. This option was exercised in late 2009 – with Amersi advising on how the deal should be structured. In January 2010, it was agreed that Telia would pay $220m to acquire 20% of the Ucell shares held by Karimova’s shell company, in exchange for help with renewing its licences in Uzbekistan.

Telia has thus far not commented on Amersi’s advisory work, but issued a statement saying that since 2013 the group has “committed itself to transparency and openness” as it completed its exit from the Eurasia region. The Swedish firm noted that it had “accepted responsibility” for its actions.

Amersi’s role in the Telia scandal is of particular interest in the UK, as he was revealed to have donated over GB£100,000 to the election campaign of current Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The Guardian reports that Amersi has close ties to Oxford University, and in 2017 spoke at an event organised by the university in which he outlined his “commitment to combating corruption”, which he described as a “heinous crime”.

The Pandora Papers comprise millions of documents exploring offshore transactions conducted by the world’s super-rich, including political leaders such as King Abdullah II of Jordan, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Many of these figures have acquired and traded property in secret via offshore firms, a practice that is technically legal but ostensibly for tax avoidance purposes.

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