Monthly Archives: May 2013

Georgia Interior Ministry Called To Remove ‘Black Box’ Spy Devices From Telecom Companies

(Civil.Ge) — Human rights and watchdog groups have called on the Interior Ministry to remove ‘black box’ devices from telecommunication companies, which give security agencies direct access to communication networks allowing them to monitor text messages, phone calls and internet traffic simultaneously from thousands of mobile phone numbers without any oversight.

On May 24 a conference was held in Tbilisi on secret surveillance, privacy rights and personal data protection – issues which have been a source of concern in Georgia for past several years but which became subject of intense discussions with an active government engagement in recent months. Concerns over privacy rights further exacerbated after leak of sex video of a fierce critic of some senior officials earlier in May; first deputy interior minister was charged in connection to this leak of the video, allegedly from cache of recordings gathered through illegal surveillance by the previous leadership of the interior ministry.

The current government has vowed to establish strong mechanisms both on legislative and executive level to prevent illegal surveillance. A joint hearing of several relevant parliamentary committees was held on May 20 to discuss planned legislative amendments.

But as it was noted during the May 24 conference in Tbilisi, organized by Transparency International Georgia, Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association and Innovations and Reforms Center, concerns still remain about practices.

Citing telecom company insiders, Transparency International Georgia says that the Interior Ministry maintains ‘black boxes’ in the server infrastructure of all major telecommunication companies, giving security services technical capacity to monitor 21,000 mobile phone numbers at the same time.

“We do not know and it is very difficult to exactly find out to what extent, if at all, the [Interior] Ministry uses these technical capabilities for unchecked wiretapping,” says Eka Gigauri, executive director of TI Georgia.

Pasi Koistinen, CEO of mobile operator Geocell, part of the Swedish-Finnish telecom operator TeliaSonera, told the conference in Tbilisi on May 24: “If there is a will from the government side, we could start really putting good practices in place already from tomorrow.”

An interior ministry official present at the conference did not address specifically the issue of ‘black boxes’ and said in general terms that the ministry was ready for close cooperation with the civil society.

The legislation requires a court authorization for wiretapping in the process of “operative investigation measures” carried out by the law enforcement agencies.

“However, judges are typically not informed in depth about the subject matter of the investigation and are not told the results of the surveillance. In the past, judges have rubber-stamped prosecutors’ applications for surveillance and communication interception. It is not clear to what extent this is still the practice,” according to the Transparency International Georgia.

Judicial authorities say that standard of scrutinizing requests from the law enforcement agencies for secret surveillance and wiretapping has increased in recent months, which to some extent has also been reflected in increased numbers of denials on motions asking for court authorization on secret surveillance.

Data only from capital Tbilisi, not including other parts of the country, show that in the first four months of 2013 law enforcement agencies filed total of 1.195 motions to judges requesting approval for carrying out wiretapping; 1,069, or 89%, of these motions were approved.

Share of approvals stood at 99.88% and 99.79% in 2011 and 2012, respectively. There were total of 7,195 such motions filed with the court in Tbilisi in 2011 and 5,951 in 2012.

Thomas Hammarberg, who was appointed by the European Commission as the EU’s Special Adviser for Legal and Constitutional Reform and Human Rights in Georgia in February, said on May 20 that the law should define clearly time limits of surveillance and any information that might be obtained through such legally authorized surveillance, but might not be related to actual case, should immediately be destroyed. He also says that the law should provide provisions obligating the authorities to inform a person, subjected to surveillance, after the time period is over that such surveillance was carried out.

“There is a need to regulate this to make any such surveillance activities unique, extraordinary and only within the frames of the law so that people can feel the trust that they are not listened to and that the mobiles are not tapped,” said Hammarberg, who welcomed that such “very difficult issues are discussed in the democratic spirit.”

Last six annual human rights reports on Georgia from the U.S. Department of State, from the one covering 2007 to the most recent report covering 2012, repeatedly mentions about individuals telling western mentors that they were reluctant to discuss, or had stopped discussing, sensitive topics by telephone due to concern about government wiretapping.

In late October, 2012 the Constitutional Court ruled that operative investigations of private Internet communications would require a court order. The U.S. Department of State’s 2012 human rights report, however, said that despite of this ruling the Interior Ministry “appeared to have continuing direct access to the technological infrastructure of telecommunication companies, raising concerns regarding continued illegal government surveillance.”

The regime’s mafia structure with TeliaSonera

The message from TeliaSonera’s new management at the AGM in April was that the controversial Uzbekistan affair was a one-off. CEO Lars Nyberg had been forced to resign and the company signaled a fresh start.

But Mission examination can publish documents dated 2012, which suggests that TeliaSonera’s suspicious business with Uzbekistan was anything but a one-time event but rather a widespread mutkultur, who still seem to last.

Partly explains the documents if it is already known, TeliaSonera’s business with Uzbekistan where over two billion was paid to a company that was directly related to the dictator’s daughter Gulnara Karimova.

But there is also a document that seems to come directly from Gulnaras desk, an internal financial reconciliation with her own handwritten notes.

TeliaSonera will pay Gulnara Karimova equivalent to 35 million subscribers as TeliaSonera received after the regime shut down a competing telecom companies.

It also appears that TeliaSonera will pay Gulnaras cultural activities such as concerts by international artists with “sponsorship”. Three times a year the company will give money to three different organizations that Gulnara entered in a list.

Mandate Review asked “Tomas”, one of the anonymous sources who played a central role in the revelation of Uzbekistan affair, what he thinks about the information in the documents.

– These different payment modes are common, very common in these old Soviet republics. And that’s where TeliaSonera has large areas of their business. This type of arrangement is a must as well as where, says Thomas.

The documents also reveal that the dictator’s daughter sells something that might best be described as the protector of TeliaSonera. It is called in the documents “consultation” but is that the authorities should go her errands.

TeliaSonera must have been in a negotiation just such “consultation” 31 July 2012, when Gulnara Karimova required three million for the service. TeliaSonera wanted the hearing to lower the amount to two million dollars. The entire contract sum would then landed at a little over 80 million Swedish kronor.

Current CEO of TeliaSonera, Per-Arne Blomquist, do not deny that a hearing took place but it should not have happened with Gulnara Karimova directly without having Takilant Ltd., then the company which is controlled by Gulnaras right hand, Gayane Avakyan. The person who received the 2.3 billion which constitutes the basis of the corruption network that financial crime authorities in Sweden and Switzerland are now investigating.

– In my world, we have never negotiated with Karimova. Then we had a discussion with Takilant, who is our partner in Uzbekistan, who came forward with a proposal for different types of consulting services that we have said no to, says Per-Arne Blomquist.

Our review shows that TeliaSonera has a widespread mutkultur in Uzbekistan?

– TeliaSonera as a company is not associated with anything that I would call mutkultur, and it also includes Uzbekistan. We have zero tolerance for corruption, says Per-Arne Blomquist.

But negotiations have taken place for just this type of service?

– Absolutely, and it should be remembered that when we have a partner that we have in these countries, so you sometimes get various proposals and then you have to be able to sit down and discuss with your partner, but then it’s very important to say no , we are not dependent on this type of services.

Documents that Mission examination can now show has been submitted by a courier from an anonymous source.

To ensure the authenticity of the documents has Assignments audit commissioned handwriting experts in both Swedish and Cyrillic alphabet analyze the documents. They have a high probability states it is Gulnara Karimova’s handwriting found on the documents.

New Documents Suggest Fresh Evidence Of TeliaSonera Ties To Karimova

Documents leaked to Swedish investigative journalists and reviewed by RFE/RL appear to offer fresh evidence of a link between Swedish telecom giant TeliaSonera and Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the president of Uzbekistan.

The documents, part of a program set to be aired on May 22 on Sweden’s SVT public broadcaster, show TeliaSonera being asked to pay hefty bribes in exchange for protection from government agencies and an infusion of new clients.

They also appear to show Karimova personally dictating the terms of the negotiations through a series of scribbles, complaints, and queries handwritten on the documents, which were obtained by SVT’s “Uppdrag Granskning” (“Mission: Investigation”) program and shared with RFE/RL.

“Mission: Investigation” has already produced a series of damning reports on TeliaSonera, which is under investigation for allegedly paying upward of $300 million in bribes to a Karimova associate to gain access to the Uzbek telecom market in 2007.

A group of alleged Karimova associates is currently being targeted in dual Swiss and Swedish probes for bribery and money-laundering, while Swedish prosecutors have opened an “aggravated bribery” case against a number of TeliaSonera employees.

TeliaSonera CEO Lars Nyberg stepped down February 1 as the company, whose two largest stakeholders are the Swedish and Finnish governments, came under increasing scrutiny for its activities in Uzbekistan.

The new documents, however, suggest that TeliaSonera continued to agree to pay bribes as recently as the summer of 2012.

Parcel Of Documents

The documents, a series of Russian-language memoranda, and executive summaries dotted with handwritten comments and attached notes, appear to have been written in part by a Karimova associate familiar with TeliaSonera’s business dealings in Uzbekistan, and reviewed in pen by Karimova herself.

The parcel of original documents was passed to “Mission: Investigation” by an unnamed courier acting on the behalf of a source, “Alexander,” who had contacted the Swedish journalists by e-mail and appeared to be well-acquainted with specific aspects of TeliaSonera’s dealings in Uzbekistan.

The authenticity of the documents cannot be independently verified. But much of their content, including previously unpublished employee lists, and the holdings of some Swiss bank accounts, have been cross-checked by “Mission: Investigation” and RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service and found to be accurate.

A Cyrillic forensic graphologist provided with verified samples of Karimova’s handwriting told RFE/RL the script on the documents is 75-percent likely to be Karimova’s. (A Swedish graphologist contacted by “Mission: Investigation” was unable to draw a definite conclusion, but had no expertise in Cyrillic.)

One of the documents, a point-by-point summary of business negotiations with TeliaSonera during the summer of 2012, appears to have been drafted by a Karimova aide for her review.

Among other things, the document notes TeliaSonera’s “confirmation” that it will pay a one-off fee of $5 million in exchange for 2 million new mobile-phone subscribers.

The confirmation of the agreement, dated July 31, 2012, is potentially significant, coming just weeks after Uzbek authorities revoked the operating license of a rival company, Russia’s MTS, leaving 9 million Uzbek subscribers without wireless service.

‘Escort’ Through Regulatory Bodies

“Mission: Investigation” has already reported that a former MTS executive, Bekzod Akhmedov, served as Karimova’s middleman in some negotiations with TeliaSonera while still employed by the Russian telecom company. Akhmedov is now a suspect in the Swiss and Swedish investigations.

The same document also outlines a demand for a massive, $15 million payment by TeliaSonera for an “escort” through five state regulatory bodies: the state tax inspectorate, customs officials, the antimonopoly committee, the state communications inspectorate, and the Interior Ministry.

The document notes that it is possible to arrange payment on a per-agency basis, as well, warning that such an alternative “will be more expensive.”

TeliaSonera’s Uzbek interlocutors specifically offer the option of lowering the fee in exchange for protection from just two of the five bodies.

An apparent attempt by TeliaSonera to talk down the price, summarized in the Uzbek document, is summarily dismissed with an emphatic handwritten “X” by the writer, believed to be Karimova. Farther down the document, the writer warns associates to bide their time on a contract stipulation on converting funds, saying, “Don’t press this for a while!”

‘Extremely Painful’

TeliaSonera has repeatedly denied any connection to Karimova, who has no official ties to Uzbekistan’s telecom industry but has been characterized by U.S. diplomats as a “robber baron” who strong-arms funds from Uzbek businesses to feed a family fortune estimated in the billions.

A Swedish telecom executive with intimate knowledge of TeliaSonera’s eastern expansion told “Mission: Investigation” that the new documents could be damaging for the company, which has recently sought to address concerns about its conduct by publishing new operating guidelines and serving as the sponsor of last week’s Eurovision Song Contest.

“If the information in these documents is true, it indicates that there has been direct dialogue with Gulnara,” said the source, who asked not to be named, citing “executive-level” firings and threats at TeliaSonera in connection with the case. He added that fresh evidence linking the company to Karimova could be “extremely painful” for TeliaSonera.

The documents also show TeliaSonera being asked by its Uzbek partners to sponsor a number of local cultural initiatives, including, a weeklong art and fashion festival held annually in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. The handwritten comments include an order to arrange such payments separately and “under no circumstances attach FF’s name to anything” — an apparent reference to Karimova’s massive Fund Forum charity, which she has used to bolster her legitimacy and potential presidential prospects among Uzbeks.

TeliaSonera’s Uzbek subsidiary, Ucell, was listed as an official sponsor of in 2011 and 2012, and the company has confirmed it participates in cultural and charity sponsorships.

‘Charitable’ Payments

The document includes a caveat that the sponsorship payments should include travel and appearance fees for a regional celebrity. (Halit Ergenc, a soap opera star from the Turkish mega-hit “Magnificent Century,” eventually appeared alongside Karimova at in the autumn of 2012.)

Insiders say such deals are routinely used as a way to tap foreign investors for additional funds. John Davy, who served as Ucell’s chief financial officer in 2008, says Uzbek authorities sometimes interrupted phone services as a way of pressing TeliaSonera for sponsorships and other impromptu payments.

“Once in a while…down goes the switch and all of a sudden we lose a hundred base stations,” Davy told “Mission: Investigate.” “We would have thousands of subscribers screaming about why they don’t have their service. So after two or three days we have to make a $100,000 payment to a charitable organization, at the choice of whomever.”

Such payments, Davy said, went into the books as donations to cultural entities. But “everybody knew what they were for,” he added. (Davy was briefly imprisoned for fraud in the early 2000s but was confirmed by a TeliaSonera insider to have worked for Ucell in 2008.)

Other documents make direct reference to Karimova’s close associate and the woman at the heart of the TeliaSonera investigation, Gayane Avakyan. Avakyan, still in her 20s, made headlines last year as the head of Takilant, the Gibraltar-based shell company that orchestrated TeliaSonera’s entry into the Uzbek market in return for the $230 million payment now under investigation.

Avakyan is one of the four Uzbek suspects named in the European money-laundering cases. Hundreds of millions of dollars in Takilant assets and other holdings have been frozen in bank accounts in both Sweden and Switzerland.

One of the documents procured by “Mission: Investigation” — dated August 8, 2012 — notes that Avakyan is in the process of reregistering several Swiss bank accounts and queries whether any funds should be moved to other “structures” in the meantime. The handwritten notes that RFE/RL believes come from Karimova say “not to touch” the bank where the accounts are but complain that the three-week registration period is “unrealistically long,” adding, “At such a speed we’ll lose everything!”

‘Zero Tolerance For Corruption

Karimova, who rarely speaks to the press, has not responded to multiple interview requests from either SVT or RFE/RL.

But in a May 20 interview with “Mission: Investigation,” TeliaSonera again denied that it had held any business negotiations with Karimova.

Acting CEO Per-Arne Blomquist, who served as the company’s chief financial officer for five years before assuming Nyberg’s vacated post, acknowledged that TeliaSonera was involved in sponsoring Fund Forum initiatives. But he dismissed any suggestion of an unseemly link to Karimova, saying that in countries such as Uzbekistan “there is often a link between leading decision-makers and these kinds of organizations.”

Blomquist went on to say that TeliaSonera’s business dealings in Uzbekistan were limited to its partners at Takilant. He acknowledged that Takilant had approached his company in the summer of 2012 regarding a variety of “consulting services” but says TeliaSonera ultimately rejected most of the proposals, including the $15 million protection package.

“TeliaSonera as a company is not involved with anything that I would call bribery culture, and that includes Uzbekistan,” Blomquist said. “We have zero tolerance for corruption, and if we discover anything to do with this issue, we deal with it.”

Eurovision’s Shady Connections to Uzbekistan’s Oppressive Regime

When Swedish singer Loreen won the Eurovision Song Contest last year in Baku, she emerged as an outspoken champion of human rights in the former Soviet Union.

She angered host country Azerbaijan by meeting with activists and saying rights in the oil-rich nation were abused “every day.”

Two months later, during a trip to Belarus, she criticized President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for jailing opponents and visited the wife of imprisoned activist Ales Byalyatski, saying the plight of the divided family “breaks my heart.”

As the contest has expanded east to include new, post-Soviet countries, watchdogs have seized the opportunity to highlight rights issues — particularly in the years when Azerbaijan, Russia, and other ex-communist countries play host.

So as Sweden prepares to host the 58th Eurovision final on May 18 in Malmo, there may have been hopes the liberal EU nation would follow suit and use the contest to gently push human rights onto the agenda.

Instead, Sweden is facing a rights liability of its own, with the communications giant TeliaSonera serving as the event’s main sponsor.

TeliaSonera made international headlines last year when it was accused of paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s president, in exchange for access to that Central Asian country’s massive mobile-phone market.

But even earlier, the mobile operator had come under scrutiny for its practice of granting post-Soviet client countries access to private phone and Internet records that were used to harass and even prosecute political opponents.

An investigative report, aired on Sweden’s “Uppdrag Granskning” news program in April 2012, documented cases in which TeliaSonera subsidiaries had provided security forces in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan with a real-time feed of citizens’ private communication activities.

In one of the most egregious examples, the “Uppdrag” report found that KGB forces in Belarus used its access to life:), the local division of TeliaSonera’s TurkCell, to physically track and arrest scores of protesters in the wake of Lukashenka’s dubious reelection in December 2010.

  The co-producer of the “Uppdrag” report, Joachim Dyfvermak, has reported extensively on TeliaSonera’s activities in the former Soviet Union. He says the company, whose majority owners are the Swedish and Finnish governments, knowingly made unsavory deals in order to enter the lucrative post-Soviet market.

“They took the risk, knowing about those countries’ participation in crimes against human rights, knowing about the price they had to pay like in Uzbekistan, where they paid the regime money,” Dyfvermak says. “They got the licenses thanks to the agreements with the regimes, giving the security intelligence total access to their customers 24-7. They’re stuck with agreements with all these dictatorships.”

In Azerbaijan, where press freedoms are among the world’s worst, records obtained by “Uppdrag” journalists showed that TeliaSonera’s local branch, Azercell, had allowed the phone of journalist Agil Khalil to be tapped after he published a piece about being beaten by government agents for his critical reporting. Khalil later fled the country after a second attack.

Ironically, Azercell had already become notorious for a scandal tied to Eurovision in 2009, when Azerbaijanis were summoned to the National Security Ministry to explain why they had voted for regional rival Armenia in that year’s contest. An investigation revealed that Azercell had provided the government with the phone records of Azeris who had cast their impolitic votes by SMS.

None of these concerns prevented the European Broadcasting Union, which oversees the national broadcasters in all 56 Eurovision member states, from naming Azercell as the competition’s main sponsor when Baku made its lavish debut as host last year.

Annika Nyberg, EBU’s media director, says the organization examines the records of all potential sponsors and includes freedom of expression among the values formally outlined in the union’s statutes.

“We’re not a human rights organization,” she says. “We’re a media organization, representing media companies. But we do have a set of values that we adhere to. And we look at sponsors based on our values and based on cooperation with them, and we are certainly very careful in choosing them.”

Nyberg says the EBU opted to award the latest sponsorship contract to TeliaSonera in November after receiving assurances from the mobile operator that it was doing its best to address concerns about its business practices abroad.

Both the EBU and Eurovision are quick to distance the actual contest, with its glitzy pop traditions and a sometimes combustible mix of nations, from the more cynical world of politics.

But as the contest has expanded east to include new, post-Soviet countries, many watchdogs have seized the opportunity to highlight rights issues — particularly in the years when Azerbaijan, Russia, and other ex-communist countries play host.

Eurovision’s Sietse Bakker, who supervised last year’s Baku extravaganza, says he and other organizers “do not connect the contest to any political goals.” But he acknowledges that the flood of media attention surrounding the song contest — both positive and negative — could “contribute to improvements” in the country.

If rights violations in Azerbaijan are one thing, in Sweden they are quite another. TeliaSonera, which is facing years of investigation and potential criminal charges, has scurried to buff its image. The company’s embattled CEO, Lars Nyberg — no relation to the EBU media director — has already vacated his post, as have a number of board members.

The company has also signed on to new industry principles on freedom of expression and privacy, although the guidelines — which conclude with a call for civil society to “engage in constructive dialogue with governments and industry to collectively seek” solutions to privacy and free-speech issues — are tepid at best.

TeliaSonera did not respond to a request for an interview but has defended its position in the past by saying its subsidiaries were aiding in law-enforcement efforts according to the legislation of the countries in which they were operating.

Then-CEO Nyberg, speaking at a shareholders’ meeting in the spring of 2012, went one step further, saying phone and Internet services can contribute to creating an open society, and that TeliaSonera was right to maintain a presence even in countries “that leave something to be desired with regards to human rights.”

Not everyone, however, is convinced. Isabel Sommerfeld, a Swedish rights activist, says TeliaSonera has done nothing to earn the right to sponsor Eurovision, with its handsome profits and a worldwide audience of 125 million.

“I think it’s really undeserved PR for them,” says Sommerfeld, who frequently travels to Belarus and witnessed the 2010 arrests firsthand. “TeliaSonera is an unethical company nowadays. They’re still cooperating with regimes in the oppression of people. Other countries should not help the dictator with his oppression. And this is exactly what TeliaSonera is doing.”