A legal case against Nokia Siemens Networks

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Isa Saharkhiz, former Iranian official, a journalist and a political activist was arrested on June 20, 2009 in northern Iran and has been imprisoned ever since.

Mr. Saharkhiz was former head of the press department at the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Education during former President Khatami's administration. He played a great role on empowering Reformists’ papers during Khatami's presidency. Reformist papers enjoyed certain level of freedom until protests over disputed presidential election in 2009. Reformists’ papers and journalists have been critical of Mr. Ahmadinejad, his government and alleged that the presidential election was fraud and challengers’ votes were rigged. About 52 journalists were arrested after protests and crisis over election results and Mr. Saharkhiz was one of the key organizers of reformist papers so he thought he has no choice but to go into hiding.

According to his Wikipedia page, three days before his arrest he told the German weekly, Der Spiegel:

I am on the run and change homes all the time. I turn on my mobile phone only one hour each day, because they can trace me and arrest me.

Saharkhiz believes that intelligence offices tracked his location through his limited cell phone usage and arrested him. So he and his son, Mehdi have filed a lawsuit in a U.S. Federal Court against Nokia Siemens Network that sold communications intercept technology to Iran which, according to him, was subsequently used by the government to monitor opposition activists.

In the legal case, Saharkhiz argue that Nokia Siemens Networks provided equipment with foresight of how Iranian authorities might use it to violate human rights:

Defendants knowingly, negligently and willfully provided the infamous, abusive and oppressive Iranian government with sophisticated devices for monitoring, eavesdropping, filtering, and tracking mobile phones. The devices enabled Iranian officials to access private voice conversation, text messages, user phone numbers, and other identifying information about the Plaintiffs as well as the nature and content of their use of electronic communications. This information was produced only through the use of Defendants’ provided equipment. The Defendants’ sale to and training of Iranian government officials knowingly and willfully aided and abetted the commission of arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, torture, and other major human rights abuses violating United States and international laws, causing Plaintiffs’ severe physical and mental suffering.

Nokia Siemens Networks issued a statement on August 20 in response to the Saharkhiz law suit:

We have no quarrel with Isa Saharkhiz and his son; indeed Nokia Siemens Networks condemns human rights violations around the world. But the Saharkhiz lawsuit is brought in the wrong place, against the wrong party, and on the wrong premise.

The Saharkhizes allege brutal treatment by the Government in Iran, but they have not sued that government. Instead, they are seeking to blame Nokia Siemens Networks for the acts of the Iranian authorities by filing a lawsuit in the U.S., a country that has absolutely no connection to the issues they are raising.

Mobile communications are a powerful tool in the promotion of human rights and the rule of law. They have done far more to empower those who fight for democracy than to empower oppressive governments. It is true that all modern mobile communications networks include a lawful interception capability; this capability became a standard feature at the insistence of the United States and European nations. These countries needed the capability for law enforcement reasons that are common throughout the world. It is unrealistic to demand, as the Saharkhiz lawsuit does, that wireless communications systems based on global technology standards be sold without that capability.

But Chip Pitts, an international attorney, human rights activists and former Chief Legal Officer of Nokia Inc. has different opinion:

Nokia Siemens Networks must be very careful here: it certainly is not the case as a legal matter that companies can take refuge in outdated arguments that they have no responsibilities for foreseeable harms caused by their products and services, or that they have no duties of care, due diligence, and avoidance of both direct infringement of human rights as well as indirect complicity in such infringement, when providing those products and services to regimes that may use them for human rights violations. On the contrary, the substantive law of corporate responsibility is increasingly clear worldwide that corporations, their directors, and their officers must adhere to global human rights norms or face legal as well as social accountability through the burgeoning variety of enforcement mechanisms proliferating globally. The fact that communications products and services also serve socially beneficial applications is true — but irrelevant to these global realities.

    San Diego, September 23 at Nokia Company in Poway (source: sandiegoneda.org)

San Diego, September 23 at Nokia Company in Poway (source: sandiegoneda.org)

Nokia Siemens Networks made a huge mistake by selling spy kit to Iranian government and whether they admit or not, doesn't change the feelings of some of Iranians who already boycotted Nokia products for assisting the Iranian government in tapping phones. Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi also criticized Nokia Siemens Networks for selling technology to Iran that is used to aid censorship and repression. Amnesty International has called on Iranian authorities to release Iranian journalists and prisoners of conscience.

Isa Saharkhiz has been imprisoned for about 15 months without charges and in terrible conditions. This law suit won`t return his life and deteriorated health back but we hope it bring accountability to corporate business dealings and make human rights part of corporation responsibility.

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