Allegations of torture have dogged the planned return of stolen assets from Switzerland to Uzbekistan for years (here). In a recent interview, a cellmate of one of the alleged torture victims has given the claims new life. And should give Swiss citizens and their government pause before proceeding with any return.
The assets to be returned are the several hundred million dollars in bribes paid to Gulnara Karimova for the grant of mobile phone licenses in Uzbekistan, something within her power as daughter of the country’s then president. She stashed most of the money in Switzerland, and when the scheme was exposed, Swiss prosecutors promptly opened a money laundering case against Gulnara and her accomplices. From the outset, the Swiss government made it clear that, if and when defendants were found guilty, the laundered funds would be returned to Uzbekistan.
A breakthrough came in 2018 when Gayane Avakyan, one of Gulnara’s accomplices, signed a Swiss Summary Penalty Order confessing to her role in the money laundering scheme and giving up any claim to the laundered funds. The order was signed while she was serving time in an Uzbekistan prison, and because of multiple, credible reports that torture is commonly practiced in Uzbek prisons, questions were immediately raised about whether torture or the threat of torture was used to get Avakyan to sign. A prison cellmate now says she was in fact subjected to a particularly harsh form of torture while incarcerated.
In an August interview with Radio Ozodlik, the cellmate, Gulya K., reveals that on several occasions Avakyan disappeared for days from the prison cell they shared, only to be returned “barely alive.” Avakyan told Gulya that she had been taken to a facility operated by the state security service and subjected to prolonged electrical shocks. Some months later, upon returning from a work detail, Gulya found Avakyan permanently gone. When she asked what had happened to her, guards said Avakian had been released.
Eighteen months after disappearing from the prison, Avakian signed the Swiss order. It was signed in Uzbekistan in the presence of a Swiss lawyer who had been appointed by the Swiss government to represent her in the money laundering case. The lawyer apparently did not suspicion that Avakian had been forced to sign. Moreover, had he asked Avakyan if she had, she would almost certainly have said no to avoid further mistreatment. Nor would the lawyer have had any other way of finding out if government personnel had tortured her or otherwise coerced a signature. That signature now paves the way for the return of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Uzbek government.
Switzerland is a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, article 15 of which requires it to ensure that –
“any statement which is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings.”
Swiss law further provides that cooperation in criminal matters with another state shall not be granted if there are reasons to believe that the foreign proceedings do not meet the procedural requirements of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. So, if indeed Avakyan’s signature was obtained through torture, the Swiss government would violate both international law and its own domestic law were it to base the return of assets to Uzbekistan on the order.
Is the government in such a rush to return the assets that it is willing to ignore the torture allegations? It should ask the Uzbek government to allow its representatives to interview Avakyan somewhere where she can speak what led her to sign the order without fear of retribution. That would remove the stigma that will otherwise haunt a return.
Asset recovery is a recent, and important, development in the international fight against corruption, and the Swiss government has sent an example for the rest of the globe in its willingness to see assets stolen through corruption are returned to the victim state. But much remains to be learned about how assets should be returned, particularly when the country requesting return is, like Uzbekistan, an authoritarian state with a dismal human rights record.
Switzerland risks staining not only its reputation but establishing a terrible precedent if it allows claims of torture to hang over a return of assets to Uzbekistan. It should continue to be the international model for asset return by insisting that any hint a return rests upon torture or other human rights violations be laid to rest before assets are returned.