Kazakhstan tightens oversight of cellphone sales

By Alexander Bogatik


A woman sells old cell phones in Taraz October 2. [Alexander Bogatik]

ASTANA -- Kazakhstani police are investigating cellphone vendors for possible facilitation of extremism.

The move comes after investigators say that terrorist suspect Ruslan Kulekbayev, who is accused of gunning down eight civilians and police officers in Almaty in mid-July, had a background in cellphone sales. Kulekbayev is awaiting trial.

Kulekbayev, the suspect in the Almaty July 18 slayings, re-sold stolen phones in Almaty, the Interior Ministry (MVD) said. He had a criminal record dating back to 2010 and served three and a half years for his second offence, illegal possession of a firearm.

Some phone vendors download extremist videos and audios to phones before selling them, authorities say.

In one recent sweep in Aktobe, "security forces [briefly] held all mobile phone vendors ... around the central market", KTK TV reported September 29.

Authorities conducting such sweeps talk to phone vendors and check all phones on sale for any extremist content, according to KTK TV.

"Cell phones passing through vendors' hands often have extremist video and audio files," Shymkent Police Chief Daniyar Meyrkhan wrote on his Facebook page July 25. "This is the way to poison people's minds."

"This story... confirms again that people with criminal tendencies become terrorists," Taraz resident and mosque-goer Rustam Akhmalishev, 68, told Caravanserai. "How can you follow the Koran, perform namaz prayer and commit these kind of crimes."

Some youth are too accepting of all internet content and send each other extremist materials by phone, he said.

Police investigate cellphone vendors

Concerned about the ease of including extremist materials on phones, police nationwide are having conversations with vendors about the risks of doing so.

"We talked with phone vendors near a shopping centre [in Shymkent]," Meyrkhan wrote on Facebook. "We explained the legal liability for selling stolen phones and the illegality of spreading extremist material on them."

He asked for the public's "understanding" and "vigilance".

In South Kazakhstan Province, the governor, Beibut Atamkulov, in late July issued his own order to police to talk to phone vendors.

Some phone vendors fear being prosecuted for extremist materials that preceded their handling of the merchandise.

"We sell used phones," Taraz phone vendor Nurbol Salikhanov told Caravanserai. "They might have various photos, videos and audio recordings. We try to delete them before selling or even re-format the phone .. especially now, when the police are looking for extremist materials on phones."

Kazakhstan to create a unified cellphone database

Kazakhstan is planning other measures to regulate the country's stock of cellphones.

It intends, for example, to create a common database of cellphone International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) codes, namely, the individual numbers that all cellphones have.

"You can find the code by dialling the combination *#06# on any cellphone," Taraz phone store manager Aleksei Nurumov told Caravanserai. "You can find a stolen phone or find the criminal who was using it when a crime was committed by its IMEI code."

On October 5, in more legislative action, the lower chamber (the Mazhilis) of parliament approved a bill on amending laws against terrorism. The amendments will take effect January 1, 2019.

Those amendments will include giving security agencies access to proprietary information on telecom subscribers, National Security Committee (GKNB) Deputy Chairman Marat Kolkobayev told the Mazhilis September 8.

Disabling cellphone service in an emergency

Those amendments scheduled to take effect in January 2019 include writing into law the ability to block cellphones and the internet during a terrorist threat.

Authorities already have done it, as happened in Aktobe during its own deadly terrorist attacks June 5-6, but the amendments will give such actions a legal grounding.

"Disabling communications prevents the spread of rumors and panic," a retired MVD staffer told Caravanserai on condition of anonymity. "Second, it bars terrorists from communicating with each other."

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