Switzerland agrees to return seized assets to Uzbekistan

Switzerland agreed on Tuesday to return to Uzbekistan millions in assets that were seized as part of criminal proceedings against the daughter of late Uzbek ruler Islam Karimov.

Is moving to Switzerland for work worth it? Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash
(Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash)

Under the terms of the agreement — signed in Bern by Swiss President Ignazio Cassis and Uzbek Minister of Justice Ruslanbek Davletov — a total USD 131 million in confiscated assets will be used to set up a UN fund for sustainable development in the former Soviet republic.

“The fund will allow the returned assets to be used for the benefit of the population of Uzbekistan,” Cassis said during the signing ceremony. 

Switzerland froze around CHF 800 million (USD 842 million) in 2012 in connection with criminal proceedings against Gulnara Karimova, the late Uzbek ruler’s eldest daughter, who is currently in jail on embezzlement and criminal conspiracy charges.

Approximately USD 131 million of that was definitively confiscated in 2019, and more could follow.

Bern insisted that the fund would not only be used for the amount currently seized, “but also for any assets definitively confiscated in the future in the ongoing criminal proceedings in connection with Gulnara Karimova.”

BACKGROUND: Uzbek leader’s daughter faces criminal probe

As “first daughter,” Karimova was among Uzbekistan’s powerful elite, serving in diplomatic posts, including in Geneva, and tipped as a potential successor to Karimov.

She organised a fashion week, had her own jewellery line, released pop singles and ran entertainment TV channels.

But several years before her father’s death in 2016, she suddenly fell from favour and feuded publicly with her mother and sister before being placed under house arrest.

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Swiss president under fire for handshake photo with Russia’s Lavrov

While attending the opening week of the 77th UN General Assembly in New York this week, Switzerland’s president Ignazio Cassis was photographed shaking hands with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Swiss president under fire for handshake photo with Russia's Lavrov

Though Cassis announced beforehand that he would address “President Putin’s recent provocations” and that he would “condemn the nuclear threat”, Russia used the photo for its own propaganda purposes, with Lavrov publishing the picture of the two smiling diplomats in his tweet.

Cassis quickly reacted with his own post, explaining that his meeting with Lavrov was for a good cause.

“I called on Russia to refrain from organizing so-called referendums in the occupied territories of Ukraine. Switzerland is also very concerned about the threat of the use of nuclear weapons. Neutrality and good offices remain our instruments of dialogue”.

However, some in Switzerland and elsewhere have not accepted this response.

While the Foreign Ministry said “it sees no problem” with this photo, Swiss media Blick noted that “no head of state or minister of a Western democracy has allowed himself to be represented with Sergei Lavrov in such a posture”.

“This image would reflect an apparent normality in relations between the two countries, while Switzerland is still one of the countries hostile to Russia”.

It added, however, that Cassis might have had a noble motive in shaking Lavrov’s hand.

“In the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s announcement to mobilise the reserve troops of the Russian army against Ukraine, this somewhat tense grip is more due to the contingencies of diplomacy than to a reconciliation”.

Others were less understanding of Cassis’ action.

“Our President is shaking hands with a war criminal… I can’t believe it”, said Bernhard Guhl, former national adviser to the Center party.

For Thierry Burkart, president of the Liberal party, “it’s unfortunate that this photo exists. But sometimes you just can’t avoid it…”

As for other social media users, one commented that Cassis “looks proud standing next to a genocide instigator… ashamed of my government”.