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GSMA politely asks Uzbekistan to free locked-up telco bods

Would be terribly nice, old boy, if you eased up on those Ruskies

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Mobile industry body GSMA has written to Uzbekistan's president in hope of resolving the country's tiff with Russian-owned operator MTS, a dispute that cut off punters and led to the "interrogation" of staff.

MTS had its Uzbekistan licence revoked in July after five employees were cuffed on suspicion of committing a variety of alleged financial crimes. One worker has been released, but the other four remain in custody, while the nine million or so customers of MTS are without connectivity. Meanwhile, the ex-Soviet state's government has been busy seizing the telco's assets.

The company insists its staff are innocent of all the allegations, which run from tax evasion to wrongfully withdrawing cash and providing services without a licence. The operator also accused the government of a sustained campaign of intimidation designed to destabilise the company and make it easier to seize.

"Telecommunications lines that we put up were cut down. Internet access — the way our headquarters in Moscow communicates with its branches in Uzbekistan — was cut off," the company said in a statement. "Illegal audits were conducted. Bank accounts were frozen."

The arrested staff have had a hard time of it, too: the company alleged its employees have been subject to "closed-door interrogations ... without access to legal counsel, and threats of physical coercion. Other prisoners in chains are paraded in front of them as interrogators taunt: 'You're going to end up like this, in chains, if you don't sign this confession'".

MTS is listed on the New York exchange, which is why the US authorities have been involved and last month warned of "a chilling effect on foreign investment" in the country if the detained staff weren't released.

The telco reckons it has poured almost $1.5bn into the Uzbekistan business, and last week wrote down $1.1bn of that in its financial filing - accepting that the assets, if not the staff, will not be coming home. But now that the GSMA has stepped into the fray the dispute will no doubt be settled amicably.

The industry body's letter, which was posted last week but published yesterday, starts with the usual flattery before getting down to tacks and suggesting that locking up staff and denying their human rights may "make it difficult for any business to consider investment", what's more "other providers may be hesitant to make investments after seeing what has happened to MTS-Uzbekistan".

We should bloody hope so, but we don't hold out a lot of hope for the GSMA's appeal for presidential intervention - despite the offer from the director general of "any support you feel the GSMA might be able to provide and my personal input to your deliberations". ®

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