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TeliaSonera Not Found to Have Bribed in Uzbek Deal, Review Shows

TeliaSonera AB should have been more careful when it bought an Uzbek phone license in 2007, although there isn’t evidence that bribery or money laundering occurred, according to a law firm hired to investigate accusations of graft.

“If one carries out business in a corrupt country, one should quite simply be more thorough than TeliaSonera has been,” said Bioern Riese, a lawyer at Mannheimer Swartling, the firm probing the deal, adding the Swedish company didn’t follow its own guidelines completely in the deal.

Swedish prosecutors opened an investigation last year into whether the country’s largest operator knew, or should have known, when it bought an Uzbeki phone license from Takilant Ltd in 2007 that the money was a bribe to President Islam Karimov’s family. Two TeliaSonera employees have been notified by the prosecutors that they’re under suspicion for their roles in the matter.

The Stockholm-based carrier, which is almost 40 percent owned by the Swedish government, has denied it broke any laws and said in a statement today “it is evident that a more stringent investigation of the counterparties should have been conducted.”

TeliaSonera bought Uzbeki mobile operator Ucell, a small operator with half a million subscribers. At the time of purchase, it agreed to buy a third-generation operating license and frequencies from Takilant for $30 million, as well as the Gibraltar-based company’s 26 percent stake in Ucell, as a “prerequisite” for entering the market, according to TeliaSonera’s website.

The 2007 deal was signed with Takilant’s only registered director, Gayane Avakyan, TeliaSonera said, adding it believed a group of unknown businessmen were supporting Avakyan. There was speculation the president’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova, may have been part of that group, according to the website report.

Chief Executive Officer Lars Nyberg said the money was paid to an account owned by Takilant, which owned the assets. Takilant existed for years before the deal and still exists, he said.

A Swedish district court agreed this month to freeze as much as 1.8 billion kronor ($286 million) of Takilant’s money, saying there is reason to believe it had accepted bribes in return for the operating permit. The court gave prosecutors until Feb. 8 to bring charges against Takilant’s representatives.

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