California the Wrong Place for Kazakh Hacking Suit, Judge Says

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge on Thursday tossed a lawsuit brought by an authoritarian government against two exiled citizens who supposedly hacked officials’ emails and published them in a critical newspaper.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh of the Northern District of California said neither Muratbek Ketebaev or Ilyas Khrapunov had enough of a personal connection to the Golden State to be tried there.

The Republic of Kazakhstan, a large country central Asian country formerly part of the Soviet bloc, sued Ketebaev and Khrapunov in federal court, saying the pair was behind a hack of government emails.

Some of the contents of the emails were later published in the Kazakh newspaper Respublika, which was founded in 2000 by Ketebaev’s wife Irina Petrushova.

Respublika focuses largely on government corruption in Kazakhstan, of which there is thought to be plenty. The republic has had only one president in its 26-year history, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is consistently re-elected with at least 95 percent the vote.

Independent commissions have repeatedly blasted those elections, and human rights groups say Kazakhstan heavily restricts freedom of assembly, speech and religion. The country has also been ranked high on lists of corrupt nations, and the World Bank said corruption is the largest hurdle to doing business in the country.

Nevertheless, the country said it was wronged when the two exiles, living in Switzerland and Poland respectively, enlisted an Israeli firm to help them hack into the email accounts of government employees.

Koh did not rule on the merits of the accusations, but instead said the defendants’ relationship to California is either slender or nonexistent, and trying in the jurisdiction is legally impracticable.

Kazakhstan said its emails were hosted by California-based Google, which suffered some sort of de minimis injury as a result of the hack though it isn’t a party to the action. Accordingly, Kazakhstan said, the defendants could be tried in the state.

Koh said this legal theory is thin.

“If such a theory of injury were permitted, then this court would have jurisdiction over any case arising from any wrongful conduct on Gmail, Google, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, to name just a few of the technology companies headquartered in this district, whether or not those companies are parties to the dispute and whether or not the defendants in such cases have any other contacts to California,” she wrote in a 23-page ruling.

The central Asian country also tried to argue that Khrapunov once owned properties in Beverly Hills, which proved a solid connection to the state.

Koh again demurred, saying that owning property does not prove he ever resided or even visited the state.

“The court finds that Kazakhstan has not sufficiently established that the hacking involved entering California, contacting anyone in California, or otherwise reaching out to California,” the judge wrote.

She gave Kazakhstan 30 days to file an amended complaint.

The nation’s lawyer, William Murphy of Dillingham & Murphy in San Francisco, did not return an email requesting comment by press time.


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