While the recent hacking allegations surrounding Moscow and the U.S. presidential election may have generated a significant amount of headlines, another hacking case involving the United States and a post-Soviet dictatorship may have implications that are likewise pernicious.
Over the past few years, Kazakhstan has filed repeated lawsuits with American courts against opposition actors, accusing them of hacking governmental emails and then sharing such information with the public.
Last month, Kazakhstan fired the latest salvo in its legal push against those who’d publicized the hacked emails. As Courthouse News wrote, Kazakhstan’s newest lawsuit, filed in California, targets Muratbek Ketebaev, a former opposition official currently living in Poland. Astana claims that Ketebaev, along with “co-conspirators” — including members of Respublika, which had been one of Kazakhstan’s dwindling independent media outlets before shutting down in 2016 — “knowingly and intentionally accessed protected computer servers of Google and Microsoft, without authorization.”
As Courthouse News wrote, “Kazakhstan says Ketebaev published the information on his personal Facebook account and that he likely participated in the initial hack. They cite his refusal to answer direct questions about his involvement in the hack during deposition — invoking his right against self-incrimination — as evidence of his likely participation.” The lawsuit further cited Ketebaev’s Facebook postings as apparent evidence of his guilt.
As it is, this is now Kazakhstan’s third lawsuit targeting opposition media or figures in attempting to link them to the 2014 hack. Like the initial suit, this new lawsuit cites the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a U.S. federal statute. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) wrote about one of the prior lawsuits, rather than simply seek monetary compensation, Kazakhstan used the filing to attempt “to pry personal information about Respublika employees and volunteers” and to use the American court system to shutter the outlet.
If past is precedent, however, Kazakhstan faces little likelihood in seeing its lawsuit achieve its stated goals. While Facebook deleted numerous posts from Respublika’s page following Kazakhstan’s filing, American courts have consistently ruled against Kazakhstan – all while bumping up interest in both the emails and Kazakhstan’s opposition media alike.
Indeed, the lawsuits present an opportunity to revisit some of the damaging leaks and accusations surrounding Astana over the past few years. Not only did at least one American official accuse Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev of being one of the most “notoriously corrupt” leaders extant — Nazarbayev and his family were, as court documents claim, on the receiving end of bribes ranging from everything from snowmobiles to fur coats — but he recently decided to spend over $100,000 to purchase a trio of letters from Napoleon Bonaparte. Likewise, recent leaks have helped shine light on how Kazakhstan spins Western governments, including the work of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in helping whitewash Kazakhstan’s 2011 Zhanaozen massacre.
Still, simply because Kazakhstan routinely loses similar cases does not mean Astana’s filings haven’t had deleterious effects on the country’s opposition media. As EFF wrote last month, Kazakhstan managed “real damage … to the free speech rights” of Respublika, which was forced to shut down following the “harassment” targeting the paper. If anything, EFF added, Kazakhstan presents an example of “how the CFAA can be used by an oppressive foreign government to enter the U.S. court system by claiming it was hacked by an unknown party, and then use the U.S. case to get court orders here and abroad to intimidate enemies and dissidents without ever having to name a defendant.”
Kazakhstan may not have found successful verdicts in its favor, but it may have stumbled across another means of stifling dissent — and preventing more prying eyes into the corruption surrounding Kazakhstan’s higher-ups.