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Science

Two Iranians file lawsuit in US against Nokia Siemens

The joint Finnish-German venture Nokia Siemens said surveillance equipment it sold Iran was legal and dismissed a lawsuit filed against it. The company also questioned the court's jurisdiction and the suit's premise.

A person holding a mobile phone

Surveillance equipment located protesters when they used mobile phones

In a lawsuit filed in an American federal court earlier this week, two Iranians alleged that the sale of Nokia Siemens Networks mobile phone surveillance technology led to the arrest and torture of one of them in Iran over a year ago.

In late June 2009, in an election widely viewed as fraudulent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected as president of Iran. In the election's aftermath, as protests raged in Iran, the Iranian government cracked down on communications technologies, shutting down mobile phone access and limiting Internet access.

In the weeks that followed, it was revealed that Nokia Siemens Networks had sold mobile phone surveillance equipment to Iran. Many Iranian dissidents blamed the company for aiding a regime that they believed was oppressive.

Protesters in Iran

Demonstrators protested Ahmadinejad's re-election in 2009

"These intercepting devices were used in crackdowns of the dissent," said Ali Herischi in an interview with Deutsche Welle. Herischi is an attorney with the law firm Moawad & Herischi LLP, which is representing the two Iranians.

"And it's exactly what happened to my client," he added. "He was in northern Iran in hiding when he used his cell phone, and as soon as he used his cell phone he was located and arrested."

Isa Saharkhiz, an Iranian reformist journalist and former government official was arrested in June 2009 and has yet to be charged with a crime.

His son, Mehdi Saharkhiz, now lives in New Jersey in the United States. The two of them have sued Nokia Siemens under the Alien Tort Statute.

The law allows foreign nationals to sue in American courts for offenses that happened abroad provided that there are violations of American treaty law - in this case, the filing alleges the elder Saharkhiz was tortured as a result of Nokia Siemens' actions.

Wrong court, wrong party, wrong premise

Nokia Siemens Networks is a joint venture founded in 2006 between the Finnish telecom giant Nokia and the German corporation Siemens. Since the company first came under fire over a year ago, it has argued that it was following the law at the time, and that it is no longer involved in the sale of surveillance equipment to Iran.

Testifying before a European Parliament committee on human rights over two months ago, Nokia executive Barry French said his company had sold "roughly one third of the deployed capacity" for mobile and data service to two major Iranian mobile operators, MCI and Irancell.

Nokia Siemens logo

Nokia Siemens said it condemns human rights violations around the world

As part of these networks, Nokia Siemens provided a "lawful interception capability to both operators" and "a related monitoring center to MCI."

But Herischi, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, alleged that Nokia Siemens either knew or should have known that lawful interception in Iran does not conform to international standards.

"Lawful interception is required for every network," he said. "And that's what we're asking. The one that Iran used was unlawful interception with the same device, and they knew that it was going to be used unlawfully."

Nokia Siemens on Friday expanded on their previous statements concerning the US lawsuit, saying that it was "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," the company wrote on its Web site. "Instead, they are seeking to blame Nokia Siemens Networks for the acts of the Iranian authorities by filing a lawsuit in the US, a country that has absolutely no connection to the issues they are raising."

Case may settle out of court

While the filing requests a jury trial, cases like this usually settle out of court, according to Adam Kanzer, an attorney with Domini Social Investments in the United States. He added that it could be in the plaintiffs' interest not to agree to a settlement.

Issa Saharkhiz

Isa Saharkhiz was tortured by Iranian authorities, his lawyer said

"For a lot of activists the fact that they're bringing the case and if they can get it to court, and get it to a jury trial, that's a victory in and of itself," he told Deutsche Welle. "They're airing their grievances and bringing a lot of publicity to the situation."

Kanzer is also a board member of the Global Network Initiative, an organization designed to help companies, human rights activists and others figure out how to stay within the letter and the spirit of the law, make money, and protect human rights concerns.

Currently major tech companies including Google, Yahoo and Microsoft also participate in the organization.

Yahoo in particular, has been in a similar situation, when it handed over data concerning a Chinese journalist to the government of China.

Human rights activists sued Yahoo in 2007, and the case was later settled out of court. Kanzer said that both the Yahoo and now the Nokia Siemens case show how there are small actions companies can take to make sure they're respecting the rule of law.

"You need to make sure that that's an official request," he said. "There are things that you can do to encourage development of rule of law in these countries and to make sure that you're not flooded with requests to do all sorts of things."

Author: Cyrus Farivar

Editor: Sean Sinico

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