Snooping Kazak Officials

There are fears the authorities could soon be handed a license to eavesdrop on their critics.

Snooping Kazak Officials

There are fears the authorities could soon be handed a license to eavesdrop on their critics.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

“I know that I am bugged. A couple of months ago, I was even given scripts of my telephone conversations over two days,” grumbled parliament deputy Tolen Tokhtasynov, a member of the opposition Democratic Choice movement.

“Unfortunately I can’t complain [to the authorities] as these reports were shown me secretly. I can’t let these people down.”

Illegal bugging of politicians, journalists and business people is said to be widespread in Kazakstan – so much so that it has been raised in parliament on several occasions.

At present, the prosecutor’s office is required to sanction electronic surveillance, but in practice, it is claimed, this procedure is bypassed. “It’s enough for [secret service] staff to visit a telephone centre and present their ID – the line of the person they are after will then be bugged, “ said one deputy, who preferred to remain anonymous.

“Some of my contacts in the law enforcement agencies told me that there is a list of people and organisations whose communications have to be bugged, “ said the leader of the opposition Orleu movement Seirdakhmet Kuttykadam.

Often officials make little attempt to conceal their activities from those they are snooping on.

“I myself noticed on several occasions that my phone conversations have been recorded. Once I talked to someone and a couple of hours later, while trying to make another call, I heard the recording of my earlier conversation,” said Rozlana Taukina, from the Journalists in Danger foundation.

Two years ago, a scandal broke out when justice ministry’s staff discovered surveillance equipment in all their offices, including that of the minister himself.

Law enforcement bodies, notably the Committee for National Security, successor to KGB, did not even try to deny the fact, arguing that the bugging devices were installed in the interests of national security.

On one occasion, a group of deputies who believed they were under surveillance thought up a ruse to confirm their suspicions.

Some of them discussed on the phone that they might vote against some provisions of a bill the government was desperate to get approved. A couple of hours later, they were visited by some officials who tried to persuade them to support the provisions, explaining how important they are for the country.

The Kazak parliament is discussing a new communications bill that some deputies say will make electronic surveillance even more widespread.

According to the proposed law, telecommunications companies will be required to grant investigators access to the phone network and information about customers.

“It would mean that [Kazakstan] will turn into a police state,” said opposition deputy Serikbolsyn Abdildin, who leads the Communist Party.

Despite expressing their concerns, parliamentarians feel that the bill will almost certainly make it into the law - some say they’ve been given a clear message that the government wants it approved.

The issue of illegal bugging has been raised in the Kazak assembly on a number of occasions but, for the most part, deputies are too timid to protest.

Once, Abdildin sent a request to the security committee urging them to look into the matter. There was no response, and the practice continued.

“I am sure that my phones are bugged – but how can I prove it,” said deputy Serikbai Alimbaev. “I don’t dare invite technicians into my parliamentary office to check for devices.”

Alibaev pointed out regretfully that members of parliament in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan are more inclined to protest about such surveillance.

Last month, a war of words erupted in Kyrgyzstan after five opposition deputies claimed that the authorities illegally bugged their offices. The National Security Service, NSS, denied the accusations, but parliamentarians called for the resignation agency’s chief, with some going so far as to call for the Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev to stand down.

“There won’t be anything like what happened in Bishkek here. Our Kyrgyz colleagues have more rights and their parliament is worth something,” said Alibaev.

“As for us, most members of the parliament can easily feel intimidated, they care of only one thing, to be able to sit through their term.”

Like many opposition politicians, human rights activists fear that the authorities will get their way over the new legislation, which, they say, will enable them to interfere even more in the private lives of Kazak citizens.

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