“We Will Find You, Anywhere”: The Global Shadow of Uzbekistani Surveillance

By Joshua Franco, (@joshyrama) Researcher/Advisor on Technology and Human Rights for Amnesty International

[To read the full briefing about surveillance in Uzbekistan and human rights from Amnesty International, click here]

As an Uzbekistani journalist, Galima Bukharbaeva was used to threats and harassment. In 2005, her courageous reporting on the Andijan Massacre — in which security forces killed hundreds of demonstrators — led to her facing criminal charges, and she was ultimately forced to flee Uzbekistan, first for Kyrgyzstan, and later for Germany, where she now lives. There she worked as the editor of UzNews.net, one of the few available sources of independent news about Uzbekistan.

Galima Bukharbaeva at her home in Berlin. An attack on her e-mail account upended the lives of numerous journalists.

But the harassment she started receiving in late 2014 was of a new, and upsetting nature. Repeatedly she was sent links to webpages that featured pornographic images, digitally altered to include her face on others’ bodies. When we met in late 2015, she told me, “twice someone created a porn page for me using my public photos and they created a page on Russian social networks, so I would receive a link saying like, ‘Oh, Galima, is it your page?’”

With those attacks in the back of her mind, the email she received a short while later, asking her to reset her Google account, which — it said — had been involved in the distribution of pornography, seemed all that much more credible. But despite its careful reproduction of the look and formatting of a Google e-mail, the message was a fake. Once Galima entered her credentials, she unwittingly gave control over her account to an attacker, which Galima learned shortly thereafter:

Galima Bukharbaeva, former editor of Uznews.net, who currently runs the site centre1.com
“I woke up and found out that my e-mail account was hacked, and that the whole content of my e-mail was published online. So it was available for everyone in the world. Of course, it’s awful. I was crying, because, as you can imagine, suddenly you feel yourself exposed to everybody — naked.”

Covers Blown — an E-mail Hack in Berlin Upends Journalists’ Lives in Uzbekistan

In order to run her website, Uznews.net, Galima had relied on journalists inside Uzbekistan to provide her with content. For their own safety, the identities of these journalists had to be kept strictly secret. Under Uzbekistan’s repressive laws, independent journalism is a dangerous job, and journalists working for foreign news outlets can face prosecution on numerous legal grounds. When Galima’s e-mails were hacked and made available online, the identities of the journalists working for her inside Uzbekistan were revealed.

Gulasal Kamolova was one of these journalists. She was in Prague doing an internship when she learned that her secret work for Uznews.net had been exposed and her information posted on a pro-government website, alongside official documents like receipts for money transfers she had received from abroad, rendering her vulnerable to criminal prosecution on numerous potential grounds, including tax evasion.

Gulasal Kamolova in France, after being forced to leave Uzbekistan
“That information appearing in such a way was a shock for all of us. There was a moment when many of my friends said: ‘Stay in Prague, do not come back to Uzbekistan after those documents have been published.’”

But despite the risk, Gulasal did return to Uzbekistan, “Being a journalist in Uzbekistan is extreme. It always gave me drive. I liked it. The fact you are under surveillance means you are doing something, something very important, something crucial that needs to be highlighted.”

A screengrab from the website uz24.uz, listing Vasiliy Markov, Dmitry Tikhonov and Gulasal Kamolova as journalists working for Uznews.com. It mentions that their connection to Uznews came to light as a result of the attack on Galima Bukharbaeva’s email, and notes that these journalists may be vulnerable to prosecution.

Vasiliy Markov also received a shock when he saw his name published online alongside the names of other Uzbekistani journalists who had been secretly working for Uznews.net.

Vasiliy Markov in France.

Vasiliy told me that this exposure put him at risk of being criminally prosecuted for a host of reasons, “The authorities can charge us with anything. They can charge us with these tax violations — they could — but they could charge us with working without permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for defamation…anything could happen.”

For both Gulasal and Vasiliy, the period after their work for Uznews.net was revealed was a tense time. Both worried that they — or their families — could be arrested or prosecuted at any moment.

Gulasal recalled, “There was this fear. There was a moment when I thought they would come and say: ‘We have a criminal case against you’ and would take me away…There was always a fear that every noise, at night or just unusual, was them coming to arrest me. I was facing this fear all those months.”

Vasiliy began to receive visits from police authorities at his house where he lived with his family. He told me, “I made the decision [to leave Uzbekistan] after a month, maybe more. After the first signs of unusual attention [from the police]. I could not wait so long, because I wasn’t alone. I had a family and little kids. So I made my decision very quickly.”

Before long, both Gulasal and Vasiliy felt they had no choice but to leave Uzbekistan and to seek asylum in Europe.

The End of the Road for Uznews.net

Back in Berlin, Galima was facing a dilemma. In order to protect the safety of her journalists, she felt she had to shut down her website, since she believed silencing their independent journalism was the goal of the threats they were facing. But the decision was not an easy one, “It was a very hard decision for me to take down the website. It was like my child.”

But eventually, Uznews.net went dark, and people were left with still one fewer source for independent news about Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan — Surveillance and Fear

Galima’s case is not an isolated one. Inside Uzbekistan, surveillance is a looming threat for human rights defenders, government critics and independent journalists, but it is only one of the many human rights threats they face.

Many have been forced to leave Uzbekistan to escape arrest, and those who remain face sustained harassment and intimidation by security forces and local authorities. Often, these threats are accompanied by derogatory media campaigns on government-controlled or otherwise pro-government websites and in other media.

Torture is routine in the Uzbekistani justice system and it is a common and widespread practice in Uzbekistan for local authorities, police and SNB (Sluzhba Natsionalnoi Bezopastnosti, the Uzbekistani National Security Service) officers to harass and threaten families as a means of exerting pressure on them to disclose a suspect’s whereabouts, or to make suspects hand themselves in to the police or the SNB, sign a “confession”, incriminate others, retract a complaint or pay a bribe.


Ubiquitous, and poorly regulated, surveillance helps maintain the climate of fear for activists. The security services in Uzbekistan can tap directly into communications networks, via the SORM system, without the service providers being aware of it. They also possess monitoring centres to monitor large numbers of internet and telephone subscribers at once, and hacking tools — such as those sold by the Italian firm Hacking Team-to break into targets’ phones or computers and monitor them remotely.[1][2][3][4]

This surveillance is facilitated by telecoms who grant the security services direct, remote-control access to their customers’ communications and associated data. These include European companies, such as Teliasonera (owner of the Uzbekistani telecom UCell) and Veon (formerly VimpelCom, owner of the telecom Beeline.)

Dmitry Tikhonov is another Uzbekistani human rights defender. He learned the hard way how the combination of surveillance and restrictive laws can wreak havoc on the lives of human rights defenders inside Uzbekistan.

In Autumn of 2015, Dmitry was working to expose forced labour, including of children, in the annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. This work was sensitive and risky, since cotton is a billion-dollar industry in Uzbekistan, and controlled by a small elite linked to political leaders. As such, Dmitry took information security, and the protection of his sources, very seriously,

“[On the phone ]we only discussed when and where to meet and possibly dropped some hints of what we might talk about. That was it. All the details were discussed face-to-face only. It is a matter of safety of those people who disclose that information.”
Dmitry Tikhonov in 2016, after fleeing Uzbekistan to seek asylum

Soon, someone published an article accusing Dmitry of fraud, of stealing money, and various other crimes and misdeeds. Such denunciations in the press are often understood by Uzbekistani human rights defenders as threats from the authorities. This escalation in his problems with the authorities had a disturbing new twist — the information in the article denouncing him was private information he had never shared with anyone.

“I realised all that information was taken from my email account because this information was nowhere in public access. I didn’t publish this data and it was impossible for it to appear anywhere. I realised that my email account was hacked, all the information from there was stolen and it was used against me.”

The stolen information from Dmitry’s accounts was used to fabricate a series of administrative cases against him, which could have led to a prison term. He went into hiding, “I went to another city and switched all my mobile phones off. I removed the batteries and sim-cards and stored all that stuff separately. I completely ceased using my phones.”

Dmitry Tikhonov surveys the wreckage of his house after it was burned.

While he was in hiding, word made it to him that things had taken yet another turn for the worse, someone had burnt down his house. “I had money there, I had documents there and it was important for me to try to save at least something somehow. I found some of my belongings there: I managed to find two documents but money and most of the stuff burned down, only two bags of stuff left. Everything else was gone, everything burned down.”

Shortly thereafter, Dmitry was caught by the police, though subsequently released. At the same time, an article appeared online falsely accusing him of terrorism, a much more serious offense then ever before. Dmitry decided that things had escalated to such a point that he had no choice but to flee.

“You know what going to prison means for a human rights defender.
Then there was a publication that stated I was a terrorist, the punishment for such a crime was up to 15–20 years in prison. And if they take you to a police station, you sign anything there. If they hang you to the ceiling and beat you with clubs. That’s it. And I realised I had to leave.”

Nowhere is Safe: Surveillance and the Diaspora

The combination of surveillance and restrictive laws drove Dmitry Tikhonov to flee his home and seek asylum. Many Uzbekistanis have had to make similar choices, and now live abroad, including in Europe.

But the threat of surveillance in Uzbekistan continues to exert its power over people even after they have left Uzbekistan.

Nadejda Atayeva is the President of the Association for Human Rights for Central Asia. I met her in Summer 2016, in Le Mans, France, where she has lived since 2002. She told me how her continued fight for human rights in Uzbekistan had come at a huge personal cost.

She told me that the phones of her family members in Uzbekistan were monitored, as were those of the families of other political emigres, and that receiving a call from abroad could appear suspicious. She told me her family members had been summoned by the authorities numerous times, who demanded to know the content of their phone conversations.

As a result, she said she had not called her close family in over a decade and a half.

Nadejda Atayeva, President of the Association for Human Rights for Central Asia
“You see, when people are connected by family ties, feelings of responsibility and guilt are mixed. When people want to be together, meet each other and they have no such right — This is such a high pressure. This is very hard.”

Other refugees I met told similar stories about how the fear of surveillance isolated them from the loved ones they had left behind in Uzbekistan.

Dilshod (not his real name) is an opposition political activist, who now lives as a refugee in Sweden. When I met him in Spring 2016, he lamented his inability to remain in contact with family members, but told me he would never call them.

“The reason is, if we talk, the same day or next day police , security services or someone from the local authorities will go and ask them what they have talked about. While they have already recorded our conversation and have already listened to all of them. Just to keep those people that we talked to under pressure and threats, they just go and question them.”

Dilshod (not his real name) a refugee in Sweden who has been forced to forego contact with his family

Dilshod told me of the only time he had broken this rule, “I have an aunty who was very close to me. She was very sick. I found her telephone and wanted to ask how she is doing before she died.”

But the next day, his aunt and cousins were visited by several police officers, who demanded to know whom they spoken to, and about what. The police visit scared his relatives, who asked Dilshod not to call anymore. He never did. His aunt passed away two years ago.

Surveillance in Uzbekistan helps reinforce the repressive environment for human rights defenders, journalists, political activists and others in Uzbekistan.

Inside Uzbekistan, hacking attacks and data breaches can lead to threats of prosecution, and force people to flee the country, as happened to Dmitry Tikhonov. But in today’s interconnected world, events outside Uzbekistan — such as the hack of Galima Bukharbaeva’s email account in Berlin — can also have devastating effects for people in Uzbekistan, thousands of miles away.

The converse is also true, even once safely outside of Uzbekistan, the threat of surveillance continues to exert its pressure on those who have fled, forcing them apart from their families back home and making their exile that much more harsh.

As Gulasal Kamolova — the journalist for Uznews.net who had been forced to flee after her identity was revealed in an email hack — told me, “When they told me: ‘you’re safe now, in France’ I responded: ‘I don’t feel safe, even being in Europe’.”

[1] Privacy International, “Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia,” https://www.privacyinternational.org/node/293

[2] Variants of the SORM system are used in Russia and many former-Soviet states. See, for example, Amnesty International, “It’s Enough for People to Feel it Exists: Civil Society, Secrecy and Surveillance in Belarus,” EUR 49/4306/2016, July 2016, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur49/4306/2016/en/

[3] See, for example, Teliasonera Law Enforcement Disclosure Report, January-June 2016, https://www.teliacompany.com/globalassets/telia-company/documents/about-telia-company/ledr_oct2016_final.pdf, at p. 17 (“When it comes to governments’ direct access, i.e. signals intelligence (intelligence gathering through analysis and processing of communication signals) and real-time access without requests (technical systems for more extensive monitoring of telecommunications), Telia Company has no insight into the extent of such surveillance and cannot provide any statistics”). Telia Company have publicly opposed such direct access systems: https://www.freedomonlinecoalition.com/how-we-work/working-groups/working-group-2/direct-access-systems/.

[4] Privacy International, Eight Things We Know So Far from the Hacking Team Hack, 9 July 2015, https://www.privacyinternational.org/node/619; The Guardian, Hacking Team hacked: firm sold spying tools to repressive regimes, documents claim, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jul/06/hacking-team-hacked-firm-sold-spying-tools-to-repressive-regimes-documents-claim