Norway’s economic crimes unit Økokrim announced Wednesday that it was dropping corruption charges against Jo Lunder, the country’s former so-called “wonderboy” of the business world. It concluded there was a lack of evidence after what has been a major international investigation that involved Norwegian company Telenor’s mobile phone interests in Uzbekistan.
Lunder was one of Telenor’s most promising young executives when, after working for years on the company’s expansion of mobile phone operations abroad, he rose to the top spot at Telenor’s partly owned VimpelCom. That company, co-owned by Telenor and Russian interests, later admitted to engaging in bribery to win contracts in Uzbekistan, paid a record fine of USD 795 million to authorities in the US and the Netherlands, and changed its name earlier this year to VEON.
Before that Lunder had been arrested in connection with the VimpelCom case, and charged after several dramatic days in early November 2015. He fought back publicly in a move to save his reputation but remained charged, aided by a high-profile defense attorney who claimed VimpelCom’s admission of corruption would have no effect on Lunder.
Doubts weighed in Lunder’s favour
Now Økokrim has dropped its charges against Lunder, announcing it had found no grounds for an indictment. “In order to indict, prosecutors must be convinced of guilt and that it could be proven in court,” lead prosecutor Bård Thorsen of Økokrim stated in a press release Wednesday morning.
Thorsen explained that he and his colleagues face the same demands as the court would have, including the principle that any doubts must weigh in favour of the defendant. After a lengthy investigation that began before charges were filed against Lunder two years ago, the prosecutors clearly had doubts, and felt they lacked evidence to prove that Lunder was guilty of complicity in the corruption at VimpelCom, now VEON.
Investigators had concentrated on what Lunder knew when he approved, for example, a transaction in which USD 30 million was transferred from VimpelCom to a company controlled by the daugher of the former president of Uzbekistan. Økokrim stated that its investigation had been extensive and time-consuming, necessitating the retrieval of documents and conducting hearings in the Netherlands, Switzerland and the US in addtion to Norway. The final hearings were conducted in the US earlier this fall, ultimately leading to Lunder’s exoneration.
‘Joyful day’ for Lunder
Lunder’s attorney, Cato Schiøtz, quickly signalled that he’d be filing a compensation claim against Økokrim on behalf of Lunder. Schiotz told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that it was a “joyful day” for Lunder, who’s long been under a cloud of suspicion.
“We’ve been working for this for two years,” Schiøtz said. “Now this case has ended and we are very glad for that.” He noted that the entire case has been a “personal catastrophe” for Lunder that cost him a new top job at shipping magnate John Fredriksen’s companies along with several other posts, including the chairman’s job at Norwegian tech firm Evry.
“I can’t think of any other person charged by Økokrim who has suffered anywhere near the losses” as his client has, Schiøtz told NRK. “We will of course demand compensation for that.”