A few years ago, an Uzbek opposition political activist now living as a refugee in Sweden heard that his aunt was sick. He decided to call her.
“When I called, the police or the people who do surveillance operations, they found her home and visited her,” he told Amnesty International, which released a report today detailing Uzbekistan’s surveillance operations and the culture of fear it has engendered in Uzbeks.
The report, titled “We Will Find You, Anywhere”: The Global Shadow of Uzbekistani Surveillance tells the stories of seven Uzbeks whose human rights, the organization says, “have been negatively affected by the unlawful surveillance of the government of Uzbekistan.”
The systems that enable this surveillance — both political and technical — have roots in Soviet times and as technology has increased the speed and range of communications the surveillance systems have grown too.
“Surveillance of internet and telephone communications in Uzbekistan is ubiquitous,” the report notes, and facilitated by private telecoms, which are required to provide “direct, remote-control access to their networks to the Uzbekistani authorities.”
On the technical end, such surveillance is enabled by the System of Operative Investigative Measures (known by its Russian acronym, SORM, which also refers to similar systems in place in Russia). Telecommunications providers are required, by law, to provide the authorities access. “Because surveillance conducted via SORM is achieved by direct state access to networks in secret, [communication service providers] themselves are not aware of how often, or why, the authorities access their networks.”
On the political end, a solidly authoritarian system assumes that one should not have anything to hide from the state.
The stories recounted in the report demonstrate otherwise.
Government critics, human rights activists and journalists — and their families and friends — bear the brunt of the Uzbek state’s ire. Issues such as torture and forced labor are particularly sensitive; with the government denying that such abuses occur and human rights organizations publishing countless reports arguing the opposite. There have also been reports regarding the harassment and abuse of the friends and families of inconvenient individuals, even after the main target has fled the country.
For example, the case of the refugee in Sweden mentioned above, referred to by the pseudonym Dilshod in the report.
“If we call our relatives, friends, and families, everything will be heard, we know that,” he said. Many of his relatives and former friends, Dilshod said, are unwilling to talk to him now.
“The reason is, if we talk, the same day or next day police, security services, or someone from the local authorities will go and ask them what they have talked about.”
The report catalogs more than just surveillance. The story of Uznews and its editor, Galima Bukharbaeva, is particularly illustrative, even as the details are obscured by the difficulty of attribution.
Bukharbaeva left Uzbekistan in 2005. In the wake of the events at Andijan, independent Uzbek media outlets came under intense pressure — fleeing was the only option. In 2014, her email was hacked via a phishing scam following a campaign of online harassment involving pages set up with Bukharbaeva’s face photoshopped onto pornographic images. Information from her email — detailing the operations of Uznews, including the names of reporters — found its way into the hands of the Uzbek authorities. Uznews’ journalists in the country operated secretly, and technically illegally as they worked without accreditation for a foreign media outlet:
Journalists can be prosecuted for working for foreign news outlets without authorization from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is rarely granted. Journalists who do not have this permission cannot report – or therefore pay taxes on – any income derived from such work if they lack permission, which in turn exposes them to the risk of prosecution for tax evasion.
Because the journalists cannot operate openly — lacking accreditation and for fear of intimidation relating to stories the government would prefer not be written — they’re caught in a bind. The stories of two Uznews journalists whose names were revealed by the hack follow Bukharbaeva’s in the Amnesty report, recounting their own tales of threats and intimidation. Both ended up fleeing the country and Bukharbaeva closed down Uznews.
Amnesty’s recommendations for the government of Uzbekistan are deceptively simple: bring Uzbek law into line with international norms, which “should ensure that interception and access to communications or associated data takes place only on the basis of a judicially authorized warrant based on individualized reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, and subject to independent judicial oversight.” Furthermore, Amnesty recommends that Tashkent cease harassing the families of criminal suspects and repeal requirements for authorization for independent journalists writing for foreign outlets.
The systems of surveillance detailed in the report have long been the norm in independent Uzbekistan — changing them would require decisive government efforts to reform past practices.