Skype call records add tantalizing wrinkle to Aliyev murder case15 july 2014, 15:10
The seven-year-old Rakhat Aliyev murder case has been a sensational affair because of his prominence, his contention that he’s a dissident rather than a criminal, and his flight from Austria to Malta when Austrian authorities were closing in on him.
Now it’s taken another intriguing turn. Records of Aliyev’s Skype calls with an associate in 2006 have provided Austrian prosecutors with damning evidence against him in the killings of two managers of the bank he owned, an Austrian newspaper has reported.
The revelation is startling because until 2012, when Microsoft acquired Skype, even a lot of tech experts thought Skype calls couldn’t be traced. The news is certain to rekindle lively discussions about Internet-service-provider privacy.
The calls in which President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law discussed the grave sites of Nurbank executives Zholdas Timraliyev and Aybar Khasenov occurred in the fall of 2006, the Vienna-based newspaper Die Presse reported.
That was seven months before Kazakhstan law enforcement authorities discovered the bodies in May of 2007, the newspaper said.
The Skype calls also included Aliyev discussing concocting an alibi in the killings, reported Die Presse, which has obtained access to some of the investigators’ evidence.
Kazakhstan authorities were pursuing a fraud investigation against Timraliyev and Khasenov when they disappeared in early 2007.
Aliyev’s motivation for ordering the killings may have been to learn what the managers had done with the money they were supposed to have embezzled, law enforcement authorities in Kazakhstan and Austria have suggested.
Rakhat Aliyev ©Yaroslav Radlovsky
The Skype calls not only could help convict Aliyev in Austria, but also “undermine his claims that the accusations brought against him were politically motivated,” the newspaper Malta Today reported.
Journalists in Malta are following the Austrian murder case as closely as Austrian journalists because Aliyev left Austria for the island in 2010 and because Maltese prosecutors have filed money-laundering charges against him.
Before Microsoft bought Skype in 2012, most people – tech experts included -- assumed that Skype calls couldn’t be traced.
That’s because the calls were routed randomly through the Internet’s millions of servers.
Ryan Gallagher of the news portal Slate went so far as to say that “historically, Skype has been a major barrier to law enforcement agencies. Using strong encryption and complex peer-to-peer network connections, Skype was considered by most to be virtually impossible to intercept.”
Producing a record of a Skype call would have required a “middleman” between the caller and the person being called, experts said.
There was no middleman until Microsoft bought Skype. That’s when the software giant began routing all Skype calls through its own servers, CNN tech reporter John D. Sutter reported.
The change “could help the app (Skype) spy on users’ calls, presumably at the request of a court or government,” Sutter noted on July 24, 2012.
The tantalizing question about Skype call records that the Aliyev case has generated is: How was Skype able to collect the contents of calls before the Microsoft acquisition in 2012?
The calls that have become evidence in the Austrian murder case were made almost six years before Microsoft bought Skype.
In the past, Skype has basically refused to discuss whether it can collect call records – the same tack that most email and Internet call-service providers have taken when asked about privacy issues.
In addition to the question of how Skype collected phone-call records before 2012, another important question the Aliyev case has raised is whether the Skype records will be admissible in court.
If Aliyev were facing trial in the United States, his defense team would almost certainly try to prevent the call records from being introduced in court on grounds they were obtained illegally. American prosecutors must snow “probable cause” that such records have a bearing on a case before courts allow them to be introduced as evidence.
It will be interesting to see if Austrian prosecutors will be able to use the records in Aliyev’s trial.
The Skype call-records revelation is the latest wrinkle in a crime story that has had more twists and turns than a John Grisham detective novel.
Kazakhstan asked Austria to extradite Aliyev in 2007. The Austrians refused, saying they feared he’d be unable to obtain a fair trial in Kazakhstan.
At the time, Austrian officials bought Aliyev’s argument that a trial was likely to be politically motivated.
A Kazakhstan court convicted Aliyev of the murders in absentia in 2007. The judges gave him two successive 20-year prison terms – essentially a life sentence.
Austria filed murder charges against Aliyev on May 19 of this year. When he returned to Vienna from Malta in June to answers investigators’ questions, Austrian authorities arrested him.
The reason Austria became involved in the murder case was that Aliyev stayed in the country after Kazakhstan stripped him of the Austrian ambassador’s post in the late spring of 2007 – a move Kazakhstan made as soon as the Nurbank managers’ bodies were found.
Aliyev was appointed ambassador around the time the managers disappeared in early 2007.
Although Austria decided it couldn’t extradite Aliyev to Kazakhstan for fair-trial reasons, it also decided it couldn’t allow a potential murderer to remain at large on its soil. That’s why it started its own investigation of the murders in 2011.
Aliyev has repeatedly maintained that Kazakhstan’s criminal case against him is politically motivated. The charges were nothing but an attempt to punish him for being a dissident, said Aliyev, who at one point announced he would run for president in 2012.
Other high-profile Kazakhs who have fled abroad when their homeland filed criminal charges against them have also tried to characterize themselves as dissidents.
They include Mukhtar Ablyazov, whom Kazakhstan prosecutors have accused of embezzling $6 billion when he was chairman of BTA Bank. A British court has convicted Ablyazov of the criminal offense of trying to hide hundreds of millions of dollars in assets to avoid losing them in a civil suit that BTA brought against him.
He fled Britain to avoid facing trial there, but was arrested in France. French courts are deciding whether to extradite him to Kazakhstan to face the embezzlement charges.