Chased From Kazakhstan, Hounded in U.S. Courts

     MANHATTAN (CN) – Fourteen years have passed since the newsroom Irina Petrushova ran in Kazakhstan was firebombed – shortly after she found the corpse of a decapitated dog at the office and its head outside her house – but threats against the journalist remain ongoing.
     With her publication Respublika long barred from newsstands and computer screens in Kazakhstan, Petrushova lives in exile, part of a cadre of dissident journalists now relying on social media to thwart government censors.
     Not to be outwitted by this new platform, however, Kazakhstan took its intimidation campaign to U.S. courts and Silicon Valley early last year after a massive leak of emails implicated corruption at the highest levels of the Kazakh government.
     Respublika joined the ranks of more than a dozen international news outlets that reported on the leak, while Kazakhstan bandied the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act as a means of identifying the alleged hackers.
     Kazakhstan’s pursuit of these unidentified “John Does” meanwhile has enabled attorneys for the former Soviet republic to cast a wider net – subpoenaing dissident journalists, publishers, Facebook and Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom as part of the global manhunt.
     A New York federal judge found that he had jurisdiction to hear the case because the leaked emails contained communications between Kazakh officials and their attorneys at the Manhattan firm Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle.
     Giving an exclusive interview on the heels of a nine-hour deposition for the case, Petrushova said she realized Respublika reporters were being targeted when their Internet hosting company received court papers.
     “Only after that, we were wise that they’re going not after hackers, they’re going after us,” said Petrushova, speaking on Skype through a Russian interpreter.
     Numbering in the tens of thousands, the government emails that appeared on the web portal Kazaword on Jan. 21, 2015, ranged from the explosive to the merely embarrassing.
     The communications shed light on a $1 billion merger between Kazakhstan’s two largest banks, extravagant spending by government officials, and international collaboration in suppressing dissent.
     Respublika used the emails to confirm that the country’s longtime strongman, Nursultan Nazarbayev, paid more than $105,000 for three letters by Napoleon Bonaparte.
     The Kazakh autocrat also collaborated with senior Russian and Ukrainian authorities to persecute a dissident politician, Respublika reported.
     Other outlets inside Kazakhstan, which ranks 160 out of 180 in the most recent press-freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, did not take heed of the revelations.
     “Nobody’s discussing it because Respublika is a different newspaper,” Petrushova said. “It’s free of censorship.”
     A little more than a week Kazakhstan filed its New York suit, U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos granted the country a sweeping preliminary injunction, barring the publication and dissemination of the “stolen materials.”
     Civil society groups such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned that the ruling could set a “dangerous precedent” for undemocratic countries to suppress their dissidents.
     At their urging, Judge Ramos scaled back his order to emphasize a fundamental tenet of constitutional law. “The First Amendment grants persons a near absolute right to publish truthful information about matters of public interest that they lawfully acquire,” he wrote.
     Although undoubtedly a victory for press freedom abroad, Kazakhstan still has the court’s leave to accuse reporters of having obtained the information illegally. More legs of the litigation have crept into California, where attorneys for Kazakhstan want information from Facebook, and King County in Washington, home to the web-hosting company eNom.
     For Respublika, the Western front of Kazakhstan’s litigation blitz confirms what dissidents have long suspected: that Facebook heeds demands by the former Soviet republic to silence its critics.
     
“Keep Your Promise to Keep This Platform Free”
     Petrushova noticed Facebook had been pulling down articles when she tried to find a story from Respublika’s archives.
     Though Facebook provided notifications for a handful of the removed posts, about a dozen others fell victim to what Petrushova called a “mass murder.” They didn’t send any notice,” she said. “They just deleted them.”
     Court documents filed by Kazakhstan’s lawyers suggest that Facebook took a cavalier attitude toward silencing its dissidents.
     “Over approximately the next two months, the following process was repeated multiple times: Stolen materials would be posted on the Respublika Facebook page. We would notify Facebook, and Facebook would typically take down the posts,” Kazakhstan’s attorney Jacques Simmelman wrote in a declaration.
     Simmelman did not respond to an email request for comment on this article, nor did Facebook.
     For Petrushova, the website’s actions belie its commitment “to keep this platform free.”
     The journalist’s translator, fellow Respublika staffer Alexey Tikhonov, chimed in at this point to explain what promise Facebook made when the New York-based advocacy Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) sent a delegation of journalists to Silicon Valley in September 2011.
     “We met the security guy from Facebook,” said Tikhonov, a Russian citizen. “And he promised us, personally, ‘No, no, no … You can call me. You can ask me. We can arrange everything. We are for the freedom, blah, blah, blah, et cetera.”
     Seeing Facebook’s censorship of Respublika as a personal betrayal, Tikhonov said the website did not respond to multiple inquiries he and his editors sent about the disappearance of Respublika’s posts.
     Danny O’Brien, the international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation who led Tikhonov’s delegation nearly five years ago, said in a phone interview that his former employer CPJ organizes these visits annually to sensitize Silicon Valley to how reporters around the world rely on their platforms.
     O’Brien believes companies have gotten the message but said implementation is problematic for mammoth corporations.
     “The challenge with dealing with any of these companies is that they have billions of users, and the number of cases where journalists or human rights activists are targeted is a relatively small number,” he said.
     O’Brien explained that dictatorships can often deploy what he called “50-cent armies” to frustrate the internal-control systems social-media companies maintain for user complaints.
     Social-media companies have both altruistic and practical motives to protect the persecuted.
     “There are plenty of laws on the books in China that would be completely contradictory to the laws of another country,” he noted. “So generally speaking, these American companies have been pretty determined to fight battles of censorship and handing over users’ data in the U.S. courts.”
     Facebook filed a motion opposing Kazakhstan’s requests in California after Courthouse News first reported on this case last year, but Respublika journalists still worry about its sincerity.
     “Basically, we are afraid that Kazakh authorities would use the information that they would get from Facebook to falsify this connection and to represent as our people – that we are actually the hackers,” Tikhonov said.
     “It’s not a conspiracy theory or anything like that because we know quite well because that’s how it works in Kazakhstan,” he added. “They wouldn’t [hesitate] to falsify the data.”
     
“The Political Opposition Disappeared in Kazakhstan”
     In power 25 years, Nazarbayev has enjoyed a complicated but profitable alliance with the United States, which looks to its vast reserves of Caspian Sea oil to wean its energy sector off OPEC nations.
     For many Kazakh dissidents, trust in U.S. institutions to support pro-democracy movements sharply eroded in the wake of another case in the same New York federal courthouse stemming from a bribery scheme in the 1990s.
     The scandal, known as Kazakhgate, bubbled up to the surface after federal prosecutors here charged wealthy U.S. banker James Giffen with violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for giving more than $78 million to Nazarbayev and his senior officials in 2003. Press reports from the time described Giffen as a wealthy merchant banker who served as Nazerbayev’s adviser, but his lawyers claimed their client also worked secretly as a CIA asset.
     Giffen’s attorneys depicted their client as “our man in Astana,” and “a patriot who helped ensure that Kazakhstan’s reserves of oil and natural gas would be controlled by American rather than Chinese or Russian companies,” The New York Times reported.
     Today, U.S.-based Chevron counts itself as Kazakhstan’s largest private oil producer, and the former Soviet republic is said to be the “diamond in [its] crown.”
     As the case against Giffen progressed, then-president George W. Bush reportedly welcomed unindicted co-conspirator Nazarbayev to the White House and his family’s compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
     The prosecution evaporated in 2010, but much of the docket to Giffen’s case remains under seal to this day.
     Respublika’s Tikhonov spoke about the prosecution for the 2012 Oslo Freedom Forum, billed by the Guardian as a “Davos for revolutionaries.”
     Though Nazarbayev used the prosecution’s unraveling to paint its independent press as “liars,” Respublika’s research exposed that complex geopolitical interests helped produce its result, Tikhonov told the audience.
     “For me, personally, it’s the most interesting case,” Tikhonov said, referring to Kazakhgate. “It’s how a country as Kazakhstan can get away in this strong, controlled, investment world, and trying to create some kind of democracy facade.”
     Megaupload’s embattled founder Kim Dotcom, who cultivated an image as a high-living champion of freedom of information and encryption, has thus far resisted Kazakhstan’s discovery demands. But he also faces possible extradition from New Zealand to the United States to face charges of criminal copyright infringement.
     Respublika’s online publishing company, LLC Media-Consult, has had greater success recently, scoring a victory in a Washington appeals court that invoked the state’s media-shield law to protect it.
     Tikhonov said that the far-flung nature of the case shows that it is a “total battle.”
     “You cannot be just a simple journalist in circumstances like that because the people you know actually disappear and you know they’re in prison,” he said. “They are killed. It’s very emotional.”
     
“Standard Bearer for Kazakhstan’s Opposition Media”
     Petrushova’s legal troubles today may be daunting, but they pale in comparison to what she faced more than a decade ago.
     On the morning of Respublika’s second anniversary in February 2002, her staffers found a gruesome present at the window grate of their Kazakhstan office in Almaty.
     “There will be no next time,” read a note, impaled into the corpse of a decapitated dog with a screwdriver.
     The dog’s severed head appeared outside of Petrushova’s home.
     “There was no celebration at all after that,” she said.
     From there, things got worse. Within six months, Petrushova received a funeral wreath by anonymous delivery, fended off multiple lawsuits from the government, and learned from a schoolteacher that government agents had tried to kidnap her son, then 8 years old.
     “So after that, I had a guard with my children, and they went to school with a guard,” she said.
     Respublika kept its newsroom open in the face of threats, until a Molotov cocktail tossed into its offices torched it to the ground.
     After learning of her imminent arrest in August, Petrushova fled with her family to Moscow. The publication has since published in exile from there and the European Union.
     The Committee to Protect Journalists honored Petrushova with its annual award for her bravery for 2002, and U.S. diplomats lauded her paper’s reputation four years later as a “standard bearer for Kazakhstan’s opposition media,” as quoted in a cable published by WikiLeaks.
     Though Interpol initially issued a red notice against Petrushova in support of Kazakhstan’s extradition efforts, the agency dropped that effort in 2011 or 2012.
     Kazakhstan officially banned Respublika around that time, and its first public order to block the news outlet’s website surfaced in 2013.
     Before this year’s litigation, Kazakhstan’s campaign of harassment against Petrushova had more or less settled.
     “It’s just people trying to hack my computer,” Petrushova said from her new home in London. “Sometimes I notice surveillance on the street.”
     “Not much,” she added dryly, as her translator laughed.

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