Authorities in Kazakhstan are stepping up efforts to tighten control on information by granting the security services power to sever internet and phone connections without having to apply for a court order.
Independent newspaper Ak-Zhaiyk reported on January 20 that the authority to disconnect telecommunications has been granted to the National Security Committee, or KNB, at all levels, down to local branches.
The stated aim of the measure is to combat terrorism.
As lawyer Jokhar Utebekov has noted on his Facebook account, the fact that the KNB will be able to act directly in blocking websites, disconnecting mobile phone links, disabling messenger apps or suspending internet connections without having to go through service providers would appear to indicate that it already possesses the technical means to do so.
The KNB will be able to carry out any of those actions at the request of the police, the anti-corruption agency, the economic crimes service and several other security bodies, in effect giving it authority previously wielded only by the General Prosecutor’s Office.
The changes to the law that have brought about these changes are, incidentally, part of the same contentious legislative package that required citizens to register with local authorities in the event that they settle in a location for more than one month.
Be it as it may, the adjustment to the law will change little in reality and will only formalize an already existing pattern of censorship.
The government in Kazakhstan plans to force internet users to register on websites with their mobile phones if they wish to post comments, the deputy head of the communications and information technology committee, Mikhail Komissarov, has told media.
KazTAG news agency cited Komissarov as saying that law is to be changed to reflect these requirements. Under the changes under consideration, websites will be obliged to create the technical means to enter one’s phone number and receive an SMS so as to be able to complete the authentication process.
The aim of this regulation is purportedly to combat what Komissarov referred to as “information war.”
“We are all witnesses to how certain articles, which do not always have an unambiguous meaning, can be interpreted ambiguously by the public, and then in the comments section information wars will break out, often taking on uncivilized forms and leading to the incitement of inter-ethnic and religious hatred,” Komissarov said.
Introduction of this type of authentication will, Komissarov believes, lower the temperature of online discussions.
“A person that has registered will think three time before writing a message that could incite somebody to something,” he argued.
Ironically and predictably enough, internet users immediately rushed to the comment boards of news article to let Komissarov know what they thought of his idea. Readers of news website Nur.kz likened the proposed rule to something out of North Korea. Others said they were seizing the final opportunity to speak from their hearts while they still had the opportunity.
Anger is mounting in Kazakhstan at a strict new residency registration law after two people dropped dead at government service centers processing the permits.
The recently implemented rules require people living anywhere for more than one month to register with the local authorities or face fines, which has led to massive crowds forming at government offices ill-equipped to handle the demand. Several hours of waiting to be served is reportedly the norm.
On January 16, 53-year old Zharas Kuntakov collapsed at an overcrowded Civilian Service Center (TsON in its Russian initials) in Almaty. The man was at the center with his father and wife and was seeking to register at his father’s home.
A witness who gave his name as Khalelkhan told Nur.kz news website that the man fell to the ground before his very eyes.
“I called the ambulance. He died five minutes later. His heart failed. The medics only arrived after an hour. Later they had to take him out through the back entrance,” Khalelkhan said.
The Government for Citizens, a state corporation created to handle the provision of government services, was swift to downplay the notion that the crowds caused by the registration drive were to blame for Kuntakov’s death and said there were few people around at the time of his collapse anyhow. Photos and video footage of the service center, however, tell another story.
Just for safe measure, Government for Citizens has advised anybody with chronic illnesses to refrain from visiting service centers at peak hours.
A crusade in Kazakhstan against the leaking of state secrets has claimed another scalp in the shape of former deputy head of the presidential administration, Baglan Mailybayev.
The Committee for National Security, or KNB in its Russian initials, said in a statement on January 16 that Mailybayev has been placed under arrest for 2 months on suspicion of illegally gathering and disseminating state secrets.
Another former top official in the presidential administration, the ex-deputy head of the internal policy department Nikolai Galikhin, has also been arrested in connection with the same case.
The KNB said it is searching the two men’s homes for evidence and that further details will be provided once investigations are concluded.
Mailybayev was fired on January 12 from the post he had held since October 2011. He was replaced by old hand and arch-loyalist Marat Tazhin.
Mailybayev has made steady and swift progress through the ranks. From June 2009 he worked as Nazarbayev’s press secretary and had previously served in various positions in the culture ministry. Galikhin, meanwhile, was as recently as December bestowed the Kurmet state award.
Political analyst Dosym Satpayev has noted that the return of Tazhin suggests President Nursultan Nazarbayev is losing faith with some of the younger cadres coming through he system and decided to put his faith in tried-and-tested figures.
Then again, the veterans aren’t having a better time of it either.
A curious advertisement popped up on Facebook a few days, appealing to women in Kazakhstan in search of a prospective husband: “An elite group of bachelors is coming to Astana from Beijing to make new friends and to get married. A number of special events are scheduled. The men are monied, have European educations and speak English, and many of them speak Russian. To learn more about these bachelors apply at our agency.”
News website Nur.kz looked into the matter and learned that an Astana company was indeed organizing a four-day trip in February for 15 Chinese unmarried men in search of a bride.
The business model is reminiscent of the kind of bride-hunting expeditions embarked upon by lonesome Western men in parts of the former Soviet bloc.
There is not much parity in the proposed arrangement. While the women, who have to pay 15,000 tenge ($45) to be placed on the agency’s books ($75 for first-time registration), get no say as to who they pair up with, the men may pick and choose. If the women are not picked, they lose their fee.
According to the program outlined by the Astana company, dates are organized for the couples at venues like karaoke bars and bowling alleys, and once a pair is set, they attend a gala dinner. Women then have the option of going to China at the man’s expense from a week to three months so as to acclimatize to the conditions and culture, and to see if they will be able to settle down.
All this has got some armchair patriots up in arms and sent them charging at their keyboards to vent their fury on social media.
The lawyer for a prominent journalist arrested last year on charges of fraud said on January 11 that his client had admitted his guilt and returned funds he is accused of earning through intimidation.
Bigeldi Gabdullin, the 61-year old chief editor of the Central Asia Monitor newspaper and the executive director of Radiotochka.kz news website, was detained in mid-November on what authorities said was suspicion of using media under his control to intimidate officials into paying him money to avoid negative coverage.
The officials targeted in this scheme allegedly lobbied for Gabdullin to receive government contracts through a system of media subsidies known as the state order. The objects of the claimed blackmail operation later had positive articles about them appear in the media, investigators claimed at the time of Gabdullin’s arrest.
Gabdullin’s lawyer, Amanzhol Muhadmedyarov, said at a pre-trial court hearing on January 11 that his client was cooperating with the investigation and helping to clarify the circumstances of his alleged crime. The journalist has compensated the injured parties to tune of 20.6 million tenge ($62,000) and pleaded to be spared prosecution in exchange for repenting for his offense, Muhadmedyarov said.
One of the people allegedly targeted for extortion by Gabdullin spoke in court to confirm that he had received the compensation and said he wished to drop charges.
Anti-corruption investigators have reportedly detained recently dismissed National Economy Minister Kuandyk Bishimbayev on suspicion of taking bribes.
Tengri news website on January 10 cited the Agency for Civil Service Affairs and Anti-Corruption as saying Bishimbayev has been taken into custody and is being held at an Interior Ministry pre-trial facility in Astana pending investigations.
Bishimbayev was fired by presidential decree on December 28 and replaced by Timur Suleimenov.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev later hinted during a government meeting on December 30 that personnel changes at the National Economy Ministry stemmed from ongoing investigations into Bishimbayev and his dealings with the state-owned Baiterek holding company.
Dark clouds have for a while been gathering over Baiterek, or more specifically its daughter company Baiterek Development, which has been under investigation since mid-November.
On November 21, a number of executives at the company were arrested on suspicion of taking bribes from lobbyists for companies seeking contracts as part of the state’s ambitious Nurly Zhol infrastructure development program. According to the Kazakhstan edition of Forbes magazine, the amount of bribes taken amounted to 288 million tenge, around $900,000.
Kazakhstan has adopted a law requiring citizens traveling within the country to register with local authorities if they remain in one locality for more than one month. Anybody found in violation of the law will first receive a written warning and then, if found to be committing the same offense within a year, a fine of around 30,000 tenge ($90).
Landlords renting out property to people without temporary registration will also face prosecution and fines of around 22,500 tenge, Nur.kz reported, citing the Interior Ministry press department.
The law enters into force on January 7 and is intended, according to its backers, to combat terrorism by keeping closer tabs of people’s movements.
Police have fended off criticism, saying the law brings Kazakhstan in line with accepted international practice.
The deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s migration department, Galina Sarsenova, has said the system would, in addition to providing another tool against terrorism, allow for an enhanced ability to monitor internal migration processes. That way, the authorities will be able to better understand where to concentrate efforts on developing labor markets, school, hospitals and other core utilities, Sarsenova said.
Kazakhstan already has a system of permanent registration — the propiska inherited from Soviet rulers and, before that, Tsarist Russia — but this incoming arrangement will be applied for relatively short-term stays.
Kazakhstan’s security services say they have rounded up 33 members of a religious extremist organization called Takfir Wa Al-Hijra following a sweep started earlier this month.
Operations were reportedly carried out in the Almaty, Aktobe and Atyrau regions and in the city of Almaty.
The National Security Committee, or KNB in its Russian initials, have said all the detainees are citizens of Kazakhstan — from southern and western regions of the country specifically. Religious literature and CDs, as well as large but unspecified sums of money, were found during searches.
The group is suspected of propagating extremist ideology and inciting the creation of a theocratic government in Kazakhstan. The activities of this cell was reputedly coordinated from abroad, although it is not stated from which country in particular.
While there is no evidence any of those detained were intent of traveling to the Middle East to link up with Islamist militants there, security services say they were sympathetic to the cause of groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. The KNB said most of the suspect are cooperating with investigators.
Seven leading figures in the group identified as Takfir Wa Al-Hijra are being held in custody and another has been granted release on their own recognizance. Seventeen people described as rank-and-file members of the group have been qualified as just witnesses.