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Uzbek secret services monitoring phone calls, emails and texts of Uzbek refugees in Europe - new report

National Security Service (SNB) detention centre in Uzbekistan © Digital Globe for Amnesty International

‘The Uzbek authorities have designed a system where surveillance and the expectation of surveillance is not the exception, but the norm’ - Joshua Franco

The Uzbekistani government is conducting unlawful surveillance of its citizens and fostering a climate of fear and uncertainty for Uzbek people in Europe, said Amnesty International in a new report today.

The 25-page report - ‘We Will Find You, Anywhere’ - shows the impact of unlawful Uzbek government surveillance on the lives of seven Uzbek people, living inside and outside the country. The cases include a refugee living in Sweden whose correspondence with family members back home was monitored, and a journalist forced to flee to France after being watched by secret service officials.

One case is that of Dilshod (not his real name) a refugee living in Sweden and an activist in the Uzbek political opposition. Members of Dilshod’s family are no longer willing to be in contact with him after receiving visits from the police shortly after speaking to him on the telephone. His dying aunt even received a visit from secret service officials following a telephone conversation with her nephew. 

Dilshod told Amnesty: 

“If we call our relatives, friends and families, everything will be heard, we know that. We [people in Sweden] won’t be under pressure or face problems, but if we call them, they will be in trouble.”

In another case from late 2014, the email account of Galima Bukharbaeva, the Berlin-based Uzbek editor of the independent news platform UzNews.net, was hacked. When the contents of her private emails were posted on Uzbek websites, the local journalists with whom she worked secretly were exposed and put at risk. One such journalist, Gulasal Kamolova, was forced to flee Uzbekistan in 2015 after receiving threats. She has been living in France for the past 11 months and has not contacted her family once during that time. Before escaping her homeland, a secret service official said to her: “Wherever you are, we will find you, anywhere.” 

Gulasal Kamolova told Amnesty:

“I am actually not afraid. I have nothing to lose apart from my work and my work is here. I think this is my response to all those threats and persecution by the secret service in Uzbekistan. I am not afraid of that, but I know that they are present here. I don’t feel safe but I am not afraid.”

Not only were Kamolova and other journalists forced to flee Uzbekistan following the Berlin email hacks, but the site for which they worked - Uznews.net - was eventually forced to close down as well.

In another case outlined in the report, human rights activist Dmitry Tikhonov was forced to flee the country after personal data made public by hacking was used to threaten him with prosecution. 

The legal frameworks created by the Uzbek government to regulate surveillance only serve to facilitate its widespread use, contrary to human rights law and standards. These frameworks provide the government with direct access to telecoms data and ensure that many types of surveillance do not require legal authorisation. Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan it is routine practice for the authorities to harass and threaten families as a means of exerting pressure on them to disclose information on a suspect.

Joshua Franco, Technology and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International, said:

“This report reveals the far-reaching effects of mass surveillance not only on the human rights of people in Uzbekistan, but on Uzbek people in Europe.

“The Uzbek authorities have designed a system where surveillance and the expectation of surveillance is not the exception, but the norm.

“Fear is driving a wedge between families, with refugees too afraid to contact their loved ones at home due to the terrible risk it can expose them to.

“It’s an environment of constant fear for Uzbekistani people, where every phone call, every email and every text message might not be private. The restrictions that this places on people’s lives and freedoms are unbearable and unacceptable.”

Hostile environment for government critics

Surveillance in Uzbekistan is adding to an already hostile environment for human rights and political activists, journalists and others in the country. In recent years Amnesty has documented serious human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and pervasive torture by law-enforcement officers and secret service officials. Human rights activists, government critics and independent journalists have been forced to leave Uzbekistan to escape arrest, harassment and intimidation by the security forces and local authorities. Those few who remain in the country are routinely monitored by uniformed or plain-clothes law-enforcement officers and secret service officials. Human rights activists and journalists continue to be summoned for questioning at their local police stations, placed under house arrest or otherwise prevented from attending meetings with foreign diplomats and delegations, or from taking part in peaceful demonstrations. They are often beaten and detained by law-enforcement officers or beaten by people suspected of working for the secret service.
 

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