Kazakhstan Sues Critic Over Email Leak

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Republic of Kazakhstan continued its attack on of one of its fiercest media critics by filing a federal computer-hacking lawsuit against the man in a U.S. court this past week.

The Eurasian nation sued Muratbek Ketebaev, a resident of Poland, accusing him of acting in concert with others to publicize information taken from government emails maintained by Gmail and Hotmail as part of coordinated computer hacks in 2014.

Specifically, Kazakhstan says Ketebaev worked with Irina Petrushova and her brother Alexand Petrushov, the editors and publishers of an independent newspaper that investigates and reports on the Kazakhstani government and the regime of its president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

“Defendant, acting in concert and in conspiracy with other presently unknown persons or entities, planned, organized, financed, and executed the hackings of the hacked accounts and computers, and thereby obtained the stolen materials,” the republic says in its complaint.

The action, filed in the Northern District of California, is at least the third lawsuit filed in the United States by Kazakhstan either indirectly or directly related to a Kazakhstani news organization Respublika, all of which stem from the hack of a huge trove of government emails from government systems and the private emails of various government officials in 2014.

The emails were uploaded to a website called Mega. It remains unclear whether hackers were responsible for the information or whether it came from a leak by a government source.

Kazakhstan sued in New York federal court claiming a group unidentified individuals violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The nation used the suit to force a judge to issue a takedown order against Respublika, which was publishing portions of the hacked or leaked emails.

According to the Electronic Freedom Foundation, which represented Respublika in the earlier case, Kazakhstani officials used the case to begin deposing media critics and attempted to force both the news organization and Facebook to divulge the identities of certain users. A federal judge denied the nation’s request and eventually allowed Respublika back online, citing the First Amendment.

In the latest lawsuit, 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.

Electronic Freedom Foundation says the primary driving force behind Kazakhstan’s lawsuits is not monetary gain, but to depose witnesses and gather information on dissidents to quash potential criticism of what many view as a kleptocracy.

Nazarbayev has been the president since 1989, with elections occurring every five years that often do not meet international standards, according to multiple sources. In 2015, Nazaarbayez was re-elected with 95 percent of the vote.

In 2011, the Kazakhstani government brutally quashed protests, with security forces firing on protesters – killing 14, injuring hundreds, and detaining and torturing scores of others, according to multiple reports.

In 1999, a Swiss bank discovered $85 million in an account belonging to Nazarbayev, according to an article by the New Yorker. It was alleged that James Giffen, an American businessman, was involved in a large-scale bribery scheme relating to the account and other elements of corruption. But an investigation into the matter went nowhere, as Giffen claimed he was working for the CIA.

Soon after, Nazarbayev pushed a bill through both legislative bodies in Kazakhstan that granted him legal immunity. In 2002, Respublika published an account of how the president stashed away $1 billion in state oil revenues for his personal use.

Soon after, Petroshuva’s office received the body of a decapitated dog with a menacing message, and the dog’s head showed up at her home. The newspaper’s office was also firebombed.

Human Rights Watch says Kazakhstan severely restricts freedom of the press, assembly, speech and religion.

Contact information for Ketebaev could not be located.

Kazakhstan is suing for violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Stored Communications Act. It seeks a finding that Ketebaev broke both laws, an injunction barring him from further use and dissemination of the hacked information, deletion of the information from the Mega website and Ketebaev’s Facebook account, and compensatory and punitive damages.

The nation of 18 million is represented by William Murphy of the firm Dillingham & Murphy in San Francisco.

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