A missed opportunity: France's return of Gulnara Karimova's illegally acquired assets:
The NGO’s Transparency International France (TI-F), Sherpa, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA), the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights (UFHR) and Civil Forum for Asset Recover are highly concerned over the opacity of French-Uzbek negotiations in the return of Gulnara Karimova’s illicit assets to Uzbekistan.
This also includes concerns over the French modality for overseeing the asset restitution to Uzbekistan; as well as the lack of transparency in the disbursement and monitoring of returned funds by Uzbekistan.
On Thursday 14 May 2020, the Uzbek authorities announced that they had received US$10 million from France in the return of "illegally acquired" assets of Gulnara Karimova, daughter of the former President of Uzbekistan. The announcement follows a 9 July 2019 decision by the French court to approve the confiscation of property acquired by Gulnara Karimova, through money derived from corruption and ordered its return, as compensation, to the Republic of Uzbekistan, who had filed a civil suit. Karimova – currently serving a prison term in Uzbekistan – is accused of soliciting bribe payments from three telecommunications companies with approximately a billion USD’s under investigation.
This first asset restitution by France to a receiving country could have been an opportunity to establish a transparent and accountable mechanism and ensure that the returned assets would ultimately benefit the Uzbek population. This unfortunately did not take place.
The confiscation of Gulnara Karimova's three properties in France was decided in the context of the French criminal procedure of the comparution sur reconnaissance préalable de culpabilité (CRPC), a French equivalent of a "guilty plea". A trial in open court was replaced by a closed-door negotiation between the French judicial authorities, the legal representative of the three civil real estate companies that had acquired real estate properties on behalf of G. Karimova, and the Uzbek state. The acceleration of the restitution of Gulnara Karimova's assets was thus achieved at the expense of transparency and accountability. The NGO Sherpa, a civil party in the Karimova case since 2014, was unable to be present at the CRPC's approval hearing, as the NGO was temporarily refused the renewal of its legal accreditation, a prerequisite for anti-corruption associations to bring a civil action in cases of corruption.
Marc-André Feffer, President of TI-F states, "the lack of transparency inherent in this restitution is damaging and paradoxical. It is damaging because there is currently no guarantee that this money will actually be used to benefit the looted populations. Paradoxical, because TI-F is currently lobbying the French government for the establishment of a responsible system for the restitution of ill-gotten property. Such a system must be transparent, accountable and involve French and local independent NGOs to ensure that the funds returned are allocated to projects that benefit the population".
This episode contrasts with France's recent momentum in the area of asset restitution and is a missed opportunity for the French authorities to set an example in the fight against global corruption and money laundering.
The "ill-gotten gains "cases have demonstrated the importance in the role of NGOs, particularly as initiators of legal proceedings such as bring civil action cases when the French public prosecutor's office has been inactive; and which also guarantees the transparency and smooth running of the proceedings. The role of NGOs and independent civil society is also essential when considering the restitution of assets in countries that do not necessarily offer guarantees of exemplary behaviour", says Franceline Lepany, President of the NGO Sherpa.
Despite the recent change in power, Uzbekistan remains ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. Uzbek and French civil society organisations therefore insist on the importance of guarantees of transparency, accountability and integrity in the return of funds to ensure that they do not fall back into the channels of corruption.
Today, it is clear that such minimum guarantees are not in place. The CRPC negotiations in 2019 covered several tens of millions of euros, a minor part of the approximately 1.3 billion dollars that Gulnara Karimova is suspected of having acquired illegally and invested abroad. Despite the size of the sums involved, and the suspicions that several senior Uzbek officials were involved in the disputed corruption schemes, France has not provided any information regarding the restitution process, while the Uzbek authorities have merely indicated that the 10 million dollars returned would be "transferred to the Uzbek state budget.
According toNadejda Atayeva, President of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, "In the absence of transparency and accountability, there is a severe concern that returned assets could be at risk of misappropriation and re-laundering. Such modalities for return would set a dangerous precedent in the return of corrupt assets to authoritarian regimes, not only by France but also by other neighbouring European countries. This is despite warnings by several Uzbek and international NGO’s and leading academics voicing concerns over the lack of credible governance reform in Uzbekistan and its potential impact on responsible asset return, with particular questions raised regarding high-ranking officials and members of the Uzbek President’s family".
Switzerland, which has confiscated several hundred million Swiss Francs from Gulnara Karimova’s associates, has at least provided minimum transparency a press release announcing the restitution of confiscated funds. The current French response sets a worrying precedent.