China and Kenya at odds over suspected Chinese cyber criminals

Kenya has detained 76 suspected Chinese cyber criminals. China wants them repatriated, but Kenya has yet to agree. Could it damage robust economic relations between the two countries?

Thomas Mukoya/AP
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, and Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta applaud after the signing of the Standard Gauge Railway agreement with China at the State House in Nairobi, Kenya, Sunday May 11, 2014. China's prime minister ended his four-country tour of Africa, which sought to recast a relationship that has admittedly faced difficulties, by signing a multi-billion dollar agreement to loan and construct a standard gauge railway line in Kenya. Kenya aims for the railway line to speed up the delivery of goods from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to its landlocked neighbors, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan but the project has come under heavy criticism.

As China steps up pressure on Kenya to surrender 76 cybercrime suspects facing charges in Nairobi, some experts are warning the case could damage the two nations' thriving economic relationship. 

China has demanded extradition of the criminals, 76 Chinese and a single Thai national, after accusing them of cross-border telecommunication fraud and electronically swindling over 100 million yuan ($16.5 million) from Chinese victims. Chinese officials argue that because all of the victims are in China, the suspects should be extradited for further investigation and prosecution there.

“Taking into account the seriousness of the crime, the huge loss suffered by the Chinese victims and the friendly relations between China and Kenya, the Chinese government further requests the Kenyan government to repatriate the above mentioned suspects back to China at an early date,” Chinese Ambassador to Kenya Liu Xianfa wrote in a leaked letter to the Kenyan government.

But Kenya is still mulling China's request. In the interim, the east African country has detained the suspects and charged them with operating an unlicensed telecommunication facility, according to Kenyan police, who arrested the suspects in Nairobi in December. If found guilty, each suspect faces up to 15 years in jail or a fine of five million Kenyan shillings ($54,000). More charges are pending. 

Kenyan officials have confirmed China's request for extradition but maintain that any transfer will have to follow diplomatic channels. 

“There is a case in court and the court process has to go through,” says an official from Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who asked not to be named, citing the diplomatic sensitivity of the case.

Kenya's Attorney General Githu Muigai told reporters in Geneva last week that any agreement for the transfer would have to meet Kenya's justice system standards. He said the alleged cybercrime could have disrupted Kenya's communication systems and infiltrated bank accounts and money transfer networks.

Economic ties

But experts warn that Kenya’s failure to agree to China's request could rock relations between the two countries and put billions of dollars of investment at stake. Government officials from both countries have dismissed such concerns.

China is the largest foreign investor in Kenya and its second largest trading partner. According to China’s customs authorities, the bilateral trade volume reached $3.27 billion last year. Recently, China funded a high-profile railway line, that will boost trade between Kenya and its landlocked neighbors, with a $3.8 billion loan. 

“It is going to be tricky for the relations of the two countries,” says Macharia Munene, an international relations professor at the US International University in Nairobi. 

Mr. Munene says Kenya has to ask the hard question of how the suspects came to Kenya. More importantly, he adds, Kenya has to work with her best interests in mind, no matter the pressure from China.

“If Kenya decides to hand them over, it should seek guarantees from China that these people and their masters will be tried,” says Munene.

Some Kenyan leaders want the suspects tried in Kenya since the alleged crimes were committed on the Kenyan soil.

“I don’t think it makes sense to transfer them. China should wait until the investigations and the court process is complete,” says Col. Benjamin Muema, a leader of the New Ford Kenya Party. “I don’t think Kenya has much to lose, since the country does not get anything for free from China. In fact, the trade is skewed towards China."

Cybersecurity concerns

As Kenya's first major international cybercrime case, it highlights the vulnerabilities in the country's cybersecurity network. Technology experts say the suspects may have viewed Kenya as an ideal cybercrime base because of its relatively strong Internet connection and few cybercrime laws. 

"Cybercrime laws remain largely unclear," said Barry Macharia, a technical manager at Tespok Kenya, a telecommunication service providers association. “This, coupled with [the] lack of proper security mechanisms in place, makes Kenyans a lucrative target for cyber criminals."

Kenya loses $22.8 million annually to computer crime, according to a recent report on cybersecurity from Serianu Limited, a Kenyan IT and business consulting firm. In 2013, the company found, bank customers lost $17 million through fraudulent schemes involving their employees. It said the number of cyberattacks climbed to 5.4 million in 2013 from 2.6 million in 2012. 

Cybercrime in Kenya has been "going on unnoticed for sometime," says Richard Tutah, a security expert. "We have to take this very seriously and fight it with same zeal as we are fighting terrorism."

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