A group of people has been arrested in Uzbekistan on suspicion of running a Telegram channel that published nude photographs of women as part of a blackmail campaign.
An Interior Ministry press release issued on May 16 indicates that the gang may have comprised at least six people, although there are reasons to believe the operation was far larger than that.
The public Telegram channel created by the suspects was titled “Hello Tashkent, Salam Tashkent” and featured intimate images and videos of women. Victims of this invasion of privacy were allegedly invited to pay money to have the images removed.
In another source of revenue, the same group offered subscribers access to a separate private channel. In exchange for fees of between 100,000 sums and 500,000 sums ($9-44), users could get access to more explicit imagery than that featured on the main channel.
Footage of the arrests released by the Interior Ministry showed six or possibly seven people lined up against a wall with their hands behind their back. A chart shown in the same footage featured 15 names also presumed to be linked to the “Hello Tashkent, Salam Tashkent” operation. It is unclear if they were among the people detained.
If found guilty on extortion charges, the arrested suspects could face up to 10 years in prison. Public sentiment is far from being universally stacked against them, though.
In truth, “Hello Tashkent, Salam Tashkent” is far from a standalone channel, but rather a complex network of replicating channels, sometimes specific to a particular region. Establishing who is behind any one channel and how many people across Uzbekistan may be subscribed to such services is all but impossible to determine with accuracy. The certainty is that the number is in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
Numerous imitators or spinoffs of the “Hello Tashkent, Salam Tashkent” model, many of them with thousands of followers apiece, are still accessible online. In a comment on the recent arrests, one of them laid the blame at the feet of the victimized women.
“Is it fair that these girls, who show their naked bodies, pushing our children toward prostitution, are allowed to go free and not be punished for this?” the author of one post asks.
In Uzbekistan’s conservative climate, sexist attitudes and gender stereotypes are ubiquitous and women are often ready prey to sexual extortion at the hands of men. “Hello Tashkent, Salam Tashkent” is just the tip of the iceberg. Numerous such channels engage in the public shaming of women by sharing their images without permission.
This has led at times to grave consequences. In one case reported in April, a 19-year-old girl in the Samarkand region died by suicide after her photo was published on a Telegram channel.
One can only guess at the full scale of the phenomenon, since the shame surrounding this issue means many cases are likely covered up. The details of one episode in which an 18-year-old woman hanged herself after allegedly being blackmailed by a National Guard officer who had threatened to post her pictures was shared by an anonymous contributor to the website of NeMolchi.uz (Speak Up), an independent project on domestic violence.
“She was a good and down-to-earth girl. She was just afraid. He was clearly older than her since he already had a job. She was afraid of our mentality, about what people would say. In the end, a family ended up without a daughter,” the contributor wrote.
NeMolchi.uz later confirmed the details of this case with the General Prosecutor’s Office.
Things are changing, albeit slowly, though. In April, parliament adopted a long-anticipated law that specifically targeted domestic abuse and introduced harsher penalties for gender-based sexual crimes.
Under the new law, dissemination of intimate content without a person’s consent, or even threating to share such imagery, has become a criminal offence. People found guilty of the offense are liable for fines of more than $17,000 or correctional labor for up to three years.