The strange story of Uzbekistan’s ‘jailed princess’

August 29
Gulnara Karimova. (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel)
Gulnara Karimova at Fashion Week in Moscow on April 2, 2011. (Mikhail Metzel/AP)

As the head of an authoritarian regime sometimes likened to North Korea, Islam Karimov is known to be ruthless. The president of Uzbekistan is accused of having his political opponents jailed, exiled or even killed. A particularly delicate case, however, is his daughter Gulnara Karimova, 42, who is believed to now be under house arrest in her own country. Secret recordings, obtained by the BBC and published last Thursday, offer a first-hand account of how Uzbekistan's once-most prominent face has turned into the country's most famous prisoner.

In the secret recordings which were later sent abroad via USB stick, Karimova says: "I'm not talking about myself now. We need medical help." She indicates that there are no answers "from no one why we're kept in the house" and she seems particularly worried about her daughter Iman who suffers from a heart condition.

On Friday, The Economist published an article revealing further insights into the downfall. According to the London-based publication, Islam Karimov considered his daughter a threat to his own popularity, which would explain her sudden downfall.


An archive picture of Gulnora Karimova, the so-called Uzbek princess. (Sergei Teterin)

According to a confidential U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008, published by Wikileaks, Karimova used to be a favorite of her father, and was simply referred to as the "Uzbek princess." After graduating from Harvard in June 2000, she became adviser to several foreign affairs officials and advanced to the position of Deputy Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan.

In a 2005 U.S. cable, she was described as "the single most hated person" in the country. According to the cable, she was perceived as greedy, power-hungry and interested in using her father's power to her own financial advantage. The diplomatic analysis concluded that recent PR campaigns "promoting [her] virtue and selflessness [were] likely part of a larger strategy to clean up the First Daughter's image." Another file from 2010 specifies that by then, Karimova was believed to own the largest conglomerate of Uzbekistan, which she used "in support of [her] private business interests." But then, things started to go wrong.

From a dictator's glamor-daughter ... 

When the suspicious conglomerate was abruptly shut down in 2010, Karimova moved on to become ambassador to Spain and the Uzbek representative to the United Nations in Geneva. At the same time, she successfully worked on an alternative career as a singer. John Colombo, who produced one of her music videos, told the BBC that, back then, Karimova "owned the country. She was everywhere." As her alter-ego GooGoosha, she dominated Uzbek radio stations and, according to Colombo, "people seemed to love her" — a remarkable change after having been described as the most-hated Uzbek only years earlier.

The glamor of her music videos, however, didn't win over her critics. At a runway show in New York promoting Karimova's brands in 2011, protesters demanded an end to alleged child labor in Uzbekistan and tried to raise awareness of the precarious human rights situation in the country. The show was canceled by organizers of New York's Fashion Week.


Protesters demanding an end to alleged forced child labor in the Uzbek cotton fields at a runway show of Gulnara Karimova in 2011. (Seth Wenig/AP)

In 2011, AP critically described Karimova as a "glamor queen. International diplomat. Plunderer of the poor." In 2013, she was overwhelmed by a major corruption scandal in Sweden, in which journalists made public that Telecommunications giant TeliaSonera had allegedly bribed Uzbek officials to enter the country's mobile phone market. Despite denials from TeliaSonera, the path of the money was traced back by prosecutors to Karimova — a scandal in which she seems to have lost the loyalty and support of her dictatorial father.

Karimova faced a separate investigation related to money laundering in Switzerland in March, but is believed to have already been under house arrest back home by then. According to the Eonomist, Uzbek tax prosecutors had recently begun to look into her businesses.

... to a human rights advocate.

Her empire rapidly crumbled: Charities and TV stations belonging to her were shut down, luxury stores and jewelry lines she had founded were closed. Although her Twitter account has since been suspended, she voiced loud protest on the social media platform, writing that the forced closures were "a serious attack on civic organizations, and on thinking society as a whole."

Within only six years, Karimova went from being Uzbekistan's deputy foreign affairs minister to the reputed owner of the country's largest conglomerate. After working in secret, she became the most prominent face and voice of the Uzbek nation. Now she has turned into the most outspoken critic of her father and an unusual human rights defender.

Is it a credible change?

Take a look at this 2010 Pew Research Center study, in which Uzbekistan gets poor rankings for its human rights record, alongside governments like that of Iran.

Andrew Stroehlein from Human Rights Watch told the BBC that Karimova "almost certainly had top-level regime access to critical information regarding serious and systematic rights abuses in Uzbekistan, and she has had many opportunities to hand that information over to journalists and human rights groups. [But] she hasn't."

Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs. He is an Arthur F. Burns Fellow at the Washington Post.
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