Serious Fraud Office targets luxury Surrey mansion linked to the ‘robber baron’ of Uzbekistan
The UK anti-fraud agency has posted an official notice detailing for the first time part of the vast wealth acquired by Gulnara Karimova (pictured below), the hugely controversial daughter of Islam Karimov, the long-serving former president who died after a stroke in 2016.
A jet-setting socialite who was dubbed the “robber baron” of Uzbekistan for allegedly abusing her position as the daughter of the country’s dictatorial president is linked to a sumptuous Surrey mansion with a private boating lake, a new Serious Fraud Office (SFO) document suggests.
She is currently subject to a US-led international investigation which alleges that while her father was in power, she conspired with telecoms companies over a decade to extort more than $865 million in bribes. The US has described the alleged conspiracy as one of the largest bribery schemes ever charged.
The SFO announced in late 2018 that it was filing a court claim to recover UK assets linked to her, but it did not provide any details.
However, a new notice in the official Gazette journal last month shows the extent of suspicious wealth the agency is chasing in the UK.
Chief among the assets on the SFO’s radar is Gorse Hill Manor, a three-storey mansion in the exclusive Wentworth Estate gated community in suburban Surrey.
Neighbours have included the Sultan of Brunei, Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and Sir Bruce Forsyth.
The spectacular mansion is set in 17-acres of gardens and as well as the lake, it also boasts an indoor swimming pool, jacuzzi, and sauna.
Other assets the SFO wants to recover include a mews property in London’s Mayfair, a nearby apartment in Belgravia, and £10 million deposited at Emirates NDB, a bank owned by the Dubai government.
Karimova, 47, was once an ambassador to the United Nations. She also performed in her home country as a pop star known as “Googoosha” and mingled with celebrities such as Elton John and Claudia Schiffer.
She had been tipped to succeed her father as president – who ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist from 1989 until 2016 – but before he died four years ago she fell spectacularly from favour.
A US Embassy cable described her as a “robber baron” who is “the single most hated person in the country”.
Reports emerged in 2012 of how she had allegedly taken bribes from a number of overseas telecom companies in return for awarding them lucrative contracts in Uzbekistan.
And after reportedly falling out with her father and family in 2014, she was taken into custody by Uzbekistan’s security services and not heard from for three years.
It then emerged that in 2015 – while her father was still alive and in power – an Uzbek court had sentenced her to five years in prison for money laundering and embezzlement offences, commuted to house arrest.
Prosecutors said she controlled an “organised criminal group” which for more than a decade up to 2013 extorted businesses, evaded taxes, and embezzled state funds.
But last March she allegedly violated the terms of her house arrest and was sent back to prison.
Immediately after, the US Department of Justice announced they were charging her with money laundering and bribery offences.
They alleged she conspired with three telecoms companies – Moscow-based MTS, Amsterdam-headquartered VimpelCom, and Stockholm’s Telia – as part of “a decade-long corrupt scheme to pay [Ms Karimova] more than $865 million in bribes”.
All three telcos had settled with US and Dutch authorities, shelling out a combined total of $2.6 billion in fines and disgorgements.
Ms Karimova’s former boyfriend Rustam Madumarov was jailed in Uzbekistan in 2014 for his role in her criminal scheme. He is named on the SFO’s Gazette notice as the holder of the bank account at Emirates NDB where the £10 million is deposited. His exact whereabouts is unclear.
The only other individual named on the Gazette notice is Islam Karimov.
The Surrey mansion was purchased in 2011 for £18 million, but Ms Karimova’s name does not appear on property ownership documents.
Instead, the buyer was Rawtenstall International Limited, an anonymous shell company incorporated in the Caribbean tax haven of the British Virgin Islands (BVI).
Experts say this is a common method for obscuring the true owner’s identity; the other two properties the SFO want to recover were also purchased in this way.
It suggests the SFO believes the three properties are linked to the named people and companies on the Gazette notice.
The latest official data shows that there are 96,812 properties owned via overseas companies in England and Wales.
The government is committed to publishing a register of the true owners of overseas entities that hold UK property. Kelly Tolhurst, the small business minister overseeing the policy, has promised to “deliver an operational register in 2021”.
Duncan Hames, policy director at Transparency International UK, said: “We welcome the SFO taking action against suspicious wealth in the UK financial system.”
“Such measures send a strong message that those seeking to hide dirty money in the UK will not simply get away with it.”
“This case also raises serious questions over the conduct of banks, financial firms and lawyers who held assets and helped invest these into property. If regulators find they fell short in their role as the first line of defence against dirty money, proportionate sanctions should be issued to create a credible deterrence against such failings.”
The SFO’s claim was lodged shortly after authorities in Uzbekistan commenced a new case against Ms Karimova.
In December prosecutors there charged her with extortion, embezzlement, organization of a criminal community, and “the conclusion of a transaction contrary to the interests of the Republic of Uzbekistan”.
The fresh charges stem from “newly discovered circumstances”, an announcement states.
The statement also claims that Uzbek prosecutors are working with international law enforcement agencies to return more than $1.3 billion of Ms Karimova’s “criminally earned income”.
It is unclear whether Uzbekistan’s new charges and the SFO’s civil recovery claim are related.
Ms Karimova apologised in a statement last year “for the disappointment which I perhaps brought”.
Her Swiss lawyer Grégoire Mangeat added in a tweet that her “arbitrary detention” had left in her in bad physical shape.
The Wentworth Estate
Spread over 1,750 acres of land in Virginia Water in leafy Surrey, Wentworth Estate is perennially popular with celebrities and oligarchs. It boasts 24-hour security and residents must pass a number of manned checkpoints before reaching their homes.
Notable residents have included the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the late Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky and property tycoon Scot Young.
Other draws for the very wealthy – so-called “ultra-high-net-worth-individuals” – include the nearby Wentworth Golf Club, an exclusive private members club where the Ryder Cup originates. The estate is also only a short distance drive from Farnborough airport, a popular hub for private jets.
More recent residents include cricketer Kevin Pietersen, F1 supremo Eddie Jordan, and musician Gary Numan. Actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly rented a mansion there in 2012.
* Editing by Ted Jeory