Torture in Tashkent: Why a Fired Banker Is Seeking $5.3 Million

(Bloomberg) -- To hear former Societe Generale banker Bobir Tadjiev tell it, his then-employer failed to protect him during a trip to Tashkent, where he was arrested, jailed and tortured. Then the bank fired him years later when he made a fuss about it.

Societe Generale’s version: The bank was a “permanent support” to Tadjiev while all that was happening and later canned him over a different matter: forwarding confidential emails to his wife—who was doing business with the lender’s customers.

The answer to who’s right could be worth 4.7 million euros ($5.3 million), the amount Tadjiev is seeking in a wrongful termination lawsuit now before a Paris employment tribunal. In arguments last week, the two sides spun differing, but equally dramatic, tales about what happened in a country that only began economic and human-rights reforms two years ago, after these events occurred.

Tadjiev was hired by Societe Generale in 1997 as the bank was opening an office in Tashkent, and was eventually promoted to head it. His wife, Guzal Tadjieva, was a consultant who advised European companies seeking financing for Uzbek projects from Societe Generale, according to Tadjiev’s lawyer, Nicolas Demard. Uzbekistan at the time was ruled by Islam Karimov, an autocratic president who held power for 27 years, until his death in 2016. His regime tortured critics and jailed thousands of political prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch.

In 2008, the Uzbek office was closed and Tadjiev relocated to the bank’s headquarters near Paris, working on a larger central Asia portfolio. Then on March 14, 2011, he and his wife took a trip to Tashkent—in his case, on Societe Generale business. Immediately upon arrival, the couple was arrested on corruption charges and detained in cells of Uzbekistan’s secret service, Demard told the hearing.

Torture in Tashkent: Why a Fired Banker Is Seeking $5.3 Million

“He was beaten, he was left naked, put in a cell with a window open when there was snow outside and it was freezing,” Demard said. His wife “was treated a bit better: She was tied to a stool and a coffee table.”

The pair was pressured to say they had handed over money, on behalf of Societe Generale, to a leader of one of the factions jostling to replace the country’s aging leader. The couple had no choice but to confess in order to get released even though they denied the money transfers, the lawyer said.

When Tadjiev got back to France he told Societe Generale everything, but the bank said he should keep quiet, his lawyer says. SocGen told him it already had enough on its plate with the record trading loss caused by Jerome Kerviel and needed to consider protecting its investments in Uzbekistan, Demard said.

Then in early 2012, Uzbekistan persuaded Interpol to issue a so-called Red Notice warrant for the banker’s arrest. The only reason he wasn’t immediately detained was that the notice wasn’t active in France, his lawyer said.

Four years later Tadjiev was arrested while on holiday in Spain with his family. For more more than six months he was kept in a cell in Madrid and received no significant assistance from SocGen, the lawyer said. He was eventually released in December 2016.

That’s when Tadjiev changed tack and wrote two letters to Chief Executive Officer Frederic Oudea asking him to “get me out of this.” Six months later he was out the door. First, SocGen told Tadjiev it had never failed to abide by its obligations and put him on leave. A few months later, he was summoned and told he would be fired for gross misconduct over to the emails forwarded to his wife, Demard said.

“I’m asking for help and now you’re going to fire me because I won’t stay silent anymore,” Tadjiev told bank officials during the meeting, according to the lawyer.

Torture in Tashkent: Why a Fired Banker Is Seeking $5.3 Million

Representatives for Societe Generale declined to comment further on the case.

Societe Generale lawyer Arnaud Chaulet empathized during the hearing with the couple’s hardships. He underlined that the bank had provided “a permanent support” to Tadjiev and wasn’t responsible for what happened to him in Uzbekistan. But, he argued, once the lender learned of the banking secrecy breaches that allegedly occurred from 2009 to 2011, it had no choice but to let Tadjiev go.

Chaulet said that the bank only became aware Tadjiev was sought by Uzbekistan on corruption accusations when he was arrested in Spain, triggering an internal probe. While the investigation cleared Tadjiev of corruption allegations, an entirely different concern was unearthed, the lawyer said.

“We found out that between 2009 and March 2011, on 300 occasions confidential data of the bank was sent directly from Tadjiev to Tadjieva, his wife,” Chaulet said, referring to the findings of the internal probe. The lawyer said that Tadjiev forwarded to his wife “extremely sensitive information,” such as client names and amounts in relation to certain funding projects in breach of banking secrecy rules.

Societe Generale’s Chaulet described the couple’s business relationship thusly: Tadjieva was working for CIFAL, a consultancy advising European companies that want to invest in Uzbekistan and that she had “no link” with Societe Generale. If she was involved in “certain operations,” it was as an adviser to companies using the bank’s financing services, he said.

Demard contended that the bank had known about the emails since Tadjiev was arrested in Uzbekistan in 2011 or shortly after he was put on the Interpol list. It would be considered a fault not to have investigated back then, the lawyer said. Demard also added that it was well-known that Tadjiev worked hand-in-hand with his wife.

“From 2011 to 2017 they sat on it. Why? Because during that time he was keeping quiet,” Demard said. That changed when Tadjiev wrote Oudea. “The insect tries to approach the sun,” Demard said.

In addition, the lawyer said, there was nothing wrong with the relationship: “It was not a conflict of interest, neither illegal nor contrary to professional ethics. He was allowed to do it.”

Employment tribunal judges suggested that the two sides should attempt to find an out-of-court settlement in the coming weeks. If that fails, the Paris judges are expected to issue a ruling on Feb. 21.

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