Once nicknamed “Princess”, Gulnara Karimova recorded catchy pop songs, wrote poetry, and designed clothes and jewellery.
The 43-year-old elder daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov has also held several diplomatic jobs and built a sprawling business empire with interests in almost every branch of the economy of this resource-rich ex-Soviet nation.
Leaked US diplomatic cables posted by the WikiLeaks website characterised her as a “robber baron” and her nation’s “single most hated person”.
“Most Uzbeks see Karimova as a greedy, power-hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people – or anyone else who stands in her way,” one of the cables said.
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In the late 2000s, Karimova was rumoured to be a possible successor of her 75-year-old father, who has ruled Uzbekistan since before the 1991 Soviet collapse. Uzbek media described her as a patron of the arts and a successful businesswoman who supports orphanages, pays for the weddings of poor couples, and who had restored a medieval religious complex in the capital, Tashkent, where one of the world’s oldest Qurans is exhibited.
But in 2014, Karimova fell out with her father and was placed under house arrest after releasing hundreds of tweets in which she described a Shakespearean power struggle in the presidential family, accused her mother and younger sister of practising witchcraft, and lashed out at top Uzbek officials.
Her business holdings disappeared, and dozens of her former employees have been jailed.
A batch of papers leaked from the Panama-based Mossack Fonseca law firm possibly marks a new low in Karimova’s fall from grace – and the fate of her jailed boyfriend, a former Uzbek pop star.
The papers describe a string of companies owned by a certain Rustam Madumarov. This is the name of Karimova’s longtime boyfriend who was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in Uzbekistan in 2014 – along with two of her confidants – on charges of stealing assets worth tens of millions of dollars and tax evasion.
Madumarov is listed as director of Stockbridge Plus Ltd and Trident Overseas Management Ltd, offshore companies linked to several more companies registered in the UK, Romania, Belize and Hong Kong, according to the website of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a Washington-based group that obtained 11.5 million documents from Mossack Fonseca.
Unlike previous leaks of the Panama Papers that provided detailed descriptions of the offshore machinations of many politicians, the documents mentioning Madumarov simply state the names, addresses of his companies, and their links to each other.
Although Karimova is not mentioned in the list of more than 100 Uzbek nationals in the Panama Papers list, an analyst on Uzbek politics is confident that Madumarov’s companies laundered her money.
“Any money on Madumarov’s account is Karimova’s money,” Moscow-based analyst Danill Kislov, and chief editor of the fergananews.com website, told Al Jazeera. He said Madumarov approached him on behalf of Karimova in 2003 offering to buy his news website, which offers rare insight into Uzbek politics and is now banned in Uzbekistan.
“It is Rustam’s name her multimillion accounts in the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, France and other countries have been registered to,” Kislov said.
A government spokesman told Al Jazeera that he was unable to comment.
Madumarov was also behind three other companies, Studio Invest, Ruby International, and Invest Service Group, which paid tens of millions of euros for a villa in southeastern France, a luxurious apartment in Paris, and Chateau de Groussay, a historic castle outside the French capital, the AFP news agency reported.
A French court confiscated these properties in 2014 as part of an international money-laundering investigation into Scandinavian and Russian telecoms, which paid Karimova about $1bn to gain access to the Uzbek market, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international group of investigative reporters.
One of the telecoms, VimpelCom, has already agreed to pay $835m as a fine after admitting it bribed Karimova.
The leaked Mossack Fonseca documents could be a miniscule part of Karimova’s assets, says an OCCRP reporter who investigated Karimova’s finances.
“Gulnara used dozens of offshore companies in her various businesses,” Miranda Patrucic told Al Jazeera.
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