Iman Karimova describes the arrest of her mother and being held captive near Tashkent
Gulnara Karimova disappeared from public view in 2014, amid rumours of her arrest. Photograph: Yves Forestier/Getty Images
Police raids, an ad hoc trial, and an aide who committed suicide by drinking vinegar: the 20-year-old daughter of Gulnara Karimova has provided new details about the remarkable fall from grace of her mother, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s late dictator Islam Karimov.
Karimova was one of the richest and most privileged people in post-Soviet Central Asia until her arrest in 2014, apparently on the orders of her own father. Her story has always resembled a tale from a morality play: vanity, corruption, hubris and eventual downfall, played out against a backdrop of an ageing autocrat and his feuding family.
The details have remained murky and shrouded in rumour and speculation, however. Now her daughter Iman, who has spent much of the past five years in effect held hostage by Uzbek authorities along with her mother, has spoken publicly for the first time in an interview with the Guardian.
Her testimony provides new insight into the Gulnara saga, and also raises alarming questions about the actions of the current Uzbek authorities, led by the new president, Shavkhat Mirziyoyev, who has portrayed himself as a reformer.
Iman Karimova also provided video, apparently shot last week in the Tashkent flat where her mother has been under house arrest, of the former socialite being dragged out of the front door by guards. Uzbek authorities say she has been transferred to prison for breaking the terms of her house arrest.
The image of a dishevelled and off-balance Karimova being dragged to jail in a dressing gown and pair of pink slippers is a far cry from her life a few years ago, when she starred in expensively shot music videos, released her own line of perfumes and organised fashion shows in Tashkent that drew western celebrities such as Sting and Gerard Depardieu.
She was described by US diplomats, in cables released by WikiLeaks, as a “robber baron”. Last week the US Department of Justice unsealed an indictment that accused her of soliciting and receiving $865m (£661m) of bribes from international telecoms companies in return for organising their Uzbek licences. She has also been targeted by Swiss and Swedish anti-corruption investigations. She has denied all corruption allegations.
Her father ruled the country from its independence in 1991 until his death in 2016, and was accused of running one of the world’s most brutal regimes, massacring hundreds of unarmed protesters in 2005, employing torture against political opponents and using forced child labour during cotton harvests.
As the economy of the post-Soviet country flatlined and millions of Uzbeks worked gruelling shifts on building sites in Russia to earn money to keep their families afloat, Karimov’s two daughters lived lives of luxury, hopping between Uzbekistan and the west.
In 2014, however, Gulnara Karimova’s fortunes took a nosedive, shortly after a public spat in which she had accused her sister of conspiring against her and her mother of sorcery. Soon after, she disappeared from public view amid rumours of her arrest.
Iman Karimova said she visited Tashkent for a planned holiday in early 2014, when she was 15 and studying for her GSCEs at Brighton College, a British private school where she had boarded for the previous three years. One morning during her visit, black-clad commandos descended on ropes to the balcony of the Tashkent flat where she was staying with her mother. Friends who were visiting were marched away with bags on their heads, while Iman and Gulnara were kept in the apartment, and the men seized all electronics and documents, including Iman’s GCSE homework.
“Soon afterwards our bodyguards came back, but now they had different instructions,” said Iman. They were now jailers instead of protectors. “My mum was trying to get through to my grandfather by telephone, but she wasn’t able to.” Gulnara never saw her father again.
It was the start of an ordeal that would continue for several years. For the next year and a half, Iman and Gulnara were locked up in a mansion outside Tashkent, together with two members of Gulnara’s staff. One of them, a woman in her mid-30s named Valentina, complained to Iman that she was not allowed to visit her children, and said her family had been receiving threats. One morning, Iman saw her being taken away on a stretcher by doctors. Iman was later told by Valentina’s family that she had drunk industrial vinegar out of despair and died.
There was no public confirmation of what had happened to Uzbekistan’s first daughter until Uzbek prosecutors announced in 2017 that she had been sentenced to five years of house arrest back in 2015.
Actually, said Iman, this “court case” was held at the house where she and Gulnara were being kept. She described how one day in August 2015, a convoy of cars arrived at the residence carrying a judge, prosecutors and a government-appointed defence lawyer who was so nervous she was shaking. She said the trial lasted a few hours and took place in the kitchen.
Shortly after the sentence was handed down, Iman was moved away from her mother to a government guesthouse complex outside Tashkent, where she was kept locked up and isolated from the world. Occasionally, she was driven to visit her mother, whose house had been fitted with metal bars in the interior corridors so that she was restricted to one room.
When President Karimov died in September 2016, his wife and other daughter Lola were consoled by Vladimir Putin at the funeral; Gulnara was conspicuous by her absence. Iman was released from captivity but was unable to leave the country for a further two years. Friends were brought to police stations and warned not to communicate with her, she said.
Now the Uzbek authorities have allowed her to travel, and after years of lost education, Iman is living in London doing fast-track A-levels. She hopes to study politics at university. She and her brother, Islam Karimov Jr, want to put pressure on Uzbek authorities to release their mother. They say she has serious health problems and requires two operations, but has not been given access to doctors. Her transfer to prison last week has prompted them to speak publicly.
Islam Karimov Jr, 26, acknowledged that his mother is accused of serious crimes. “Yes she should face some kind of trial in Switzerland, yes she should go through the legal system, but what’s happening to her now is a complete teardown of her as a person and as a mother,” he told the Guardian.
Gulnara’s children have a surprising ally in human rights organisations which once vehemently criticised their mother for her role in the Karimov regime.
“Gulnara Karimova remains hated and reviled by many Uzbeks for her well-documented corruption and obliviousness to the real struggles of ordinary people, but even she deserves due process,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. He said the Uzbek authorities should provide transparency over the details of the case against her, and ensure Karimova regular access to a lawyer.
Islam Karimov Jr said he believed the treatment of his mother was a sign that the new Uzbek government offered little more than “cosmetic changes” to the system installed by his grandfather, whom he described as “a strongman dictator”.
He also said the new authorities are scared that Karimova could implicate many of the current elite in economic crimes committed during the Karimov era. “So many things will come out and they’re all connected to it,” he said.