Sunday, 4 June, 2023

How Uzbek president’s daughter built a £200m property empire

A dictator's daughter who moonlighted as a pop star and diplomat spent $240m (£200m) on properties from London to Hong Kong, a report has found.

Gulnara Karimova used UK companies to buy homes and a jet with funds obtained through bribery and corruption, the Freedom For Eurasia study says.

It adds that accounting firms in London and the British Virgin Islands acted for UK companies involved in the deals.

The story raises fresh doubts about the UK's efforts to tackle illegal wealth.

British authorities have long been accused of not doing enough to prevent criminals from overseas using UK property to launder money.

The report says the ease with which Karimova obtained UK property was "concerning".

There is no suggestion that those acting for the companies linked to her were aware of any connection to her nor that the source of funds could have been suspicious. No-one who provided those services in the UK has been investigated or fined.

For a time Gulnara Karimova was tipped to succeed her father, Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan as president of the central Asian state from 1989 until his death in 2016. She appeared in pop videos under the stage name "Googoosha", ran a jewellery company and served as ambassador to Spain.


But then in 2014 she disappeared from public view. It later emerged she had been detained on corruption charges while her father was still in power and she was sentenced in December 2017. In 2019 she was sent to prison for breaching the terms of her house arrest.

Prosecutors accused her of being part of a criminal group that controlled assets of more than $1bn (£760m) in 12 countries, including the UK, Russia and United Arab Emirates. "The Karimova case is one of the largest bribery and corruption cases of all time," says Tom Mayne, one of the researchers on the Freedom For Eurasia report and a research fellow at the University of Oxford.

However, Karimova and her associates had already sold some of the property allegedly acquired with corrupt funds.

Freedom For Eurasia researched property and land registry records to identify at least 14 properties which it says were purchased before she arrested, with allegedly suspicious funds, in various countries, including the UK, Switzerland, France, Dubai and Hong Kong.

The report to be published on Tuesday 14 March, titled Who Enabled the Uzbek Princess?, focuses on five properties bought in and around London, now worth an estimated £50m - including three flats in Belgravia, just west of Buckingham Palace, a house in Mayfair and an £18m Surrey manor house with a private boating lake.

Two of the Belgravia flats were sold in 2013 before Karimova was detained. In 2017, the house in Mayfair, the Surrey mansion and a third flat in Belgravia were frozen by the Serious Fraud Office.

Freedom For Eurasia's report also names firms in London and the British Virgin Islands that it claims were used by Karimova or associates to enable them to spend the proceeds of crime on the properties as well as on private jetliner.

Karimova's boyfriend, Rustam Madumarov, and others now alleged to be associates of hers were listed in official documents as the "beneficial owners" - a legal term for the person who ultimately is in control - of companies based in the UK, Gibraltar and the British Virgin Islands. But the report says they were just proxies for Karimova, who used the firms to launder hundreds of millions of dollars.

Accountancy services for two UK companies linked to Karimova - Panally Ltd and Odenton Management Ltd - were provided by SH Landes LLP, a firm formerly located on New Oxford Street in London.

In late July 2010, SH Landes sought to register or acquire another company. The aim was to purchase a private jet for around $40m (£33m), with Madumarov named as the beneficial owner. In fact, according to the report, Karimova was really behind the purchase.

When asked at the time about the source of his funds, SH Landes replied: "We believe that the question regarding his personal wealth is not relevant in this situation." This was seemingly because the money to buy the jet were not being provided by Madumarov out of his personal funds.

The London-based firm later said Madumarov's wealth came partly from a mobile phone company based in Uzbekistan, Uzdonrobita. Questions had already been raised about the company's possible links to Karimova. As far back as 2004, an article for the Moscow Times had alleged that Karimova siphoned some $20m out of Uzdunrobita using fraudulent invoices. A former adviser had also accused Karimova of "racketeering".

Because it was a high-value transaction linked to a high-risk jurisdiction, Uzbekistan, the report argues that SH Landes should have conducted "enhanced due diligence" - thorough background checks to ensure the source of funds was legitimate and not derived from criminal activity.

SH Landes also submitted the 2012 financial statements for Panally Ltd. The report says in September 2013 they were signed off by a close associate of Karimova's: Gayane Avakyan, then aged 30.

The previous year, the BBC had published allegations that Avakyan was the registered beneficial owner of Takilant, a Gibraltar-registered company at the centre of "a high-level multi-million dollar fraud and corruption scandal in Uzbekistan".

In a statement to the BBC, Steven Landes said: "SH Landes LLP was never engaged by Gulnara Karimova. SH Landes LLP did act on behalf of Rustam Madumarov.

"SH Landes LLP obtained due diligence on all its clients and relevant regulatory authorities were notified and kept appraised."

Tom Mayne of Freedom For Eurasia said the apparent ease with which Karimova managed to buy so much UK property was concerning.

"It took the authorities until 2017 to do anything, years after other countries had already frozen bank accounts and properties that belonged to her," he added.