STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Swedish prosecutors have opened a preliminary probe into TeliaSonera AB’s TLSN.ST purchase of a telecom license in Uzbekistan, adding to pressure on the group over its activities in fast-growing but authoritarian countries in central Asia.
TeliaSonera, partially owned by the Swedish state, has denied it did anything wrong in 2007 when it bought a 3G license to operate in Uzbekistan from a Gibraltar-based company.
The company has said it will appoint independent investigators to look into allegations of bribery and money laundering associated with the deal. But it declined to make any comment about the investigation by the prosecutor’s office.
“We can confirm that the Swedish police have collected information from TeliaSonera regarding Uzbekistan,” TeliaSonera said in a statement. “The anti-corruption unit of the Swedish Prosecuting Authorities have now initiated an investigation, which we welcome.”
The prosecutor’s office confirmed the probe but declined to give details of what it was looking into.
Telia, in which Sweden owns a roughly 37 percent stake, has come under scrutiny in recent months over its activities in central Asia.
Swedish TV program “Mission: Investigate”, which aired last week, alleged Telia bought its Uzbek 3G license from a firm it said has close ties with the daughter of Uzbek president Islam Karimov.
Karimov has ruled his gas-rich republic since independence from the Soviet Union two decades ago. Russian telecoms operator MTS has run into trouble in the country, having had its Uzbek license withdrawn and the assets confiscated.
Telia CEO Lars Nyberg has staked his job on the company being exonerated from wrongdoing in the 2.3 billion crown deal ($351.9 million) with Gibraltar-based Takilant Ltd.
Telia has said it did a background check on Takilant and found Takilant was the rightful owner of the assets it bought.
Nyberg has said that although the investigation could not discover whether anyone other than Takilant’s single shareholder stood to gain from the deal, Telia had gone ahead.
He said he did now know where Takilant had got its 3G license from or how long it had held it.
Telia was in hot water earlier this year for allowing authorities in Azerbaijan, Belarus and Uzbekistan to access its networks to keep tabs on anti-government activists.
It has said it was following local laws.
Sweden’s government has criticized Telia and called for it to restore its credibility after recent events.
Reporting by Simom Johnson and Patrick Lannin; Editing by David Holmes