“I am on the run and change homes all the time,” Iranian journalist Isa Saharkhiz told German weekly Der Spiegel on the morning of June 29, 2009, in the midst of Iran’s post-election turmoil. “I turn on my mobile phone only one hour each day, because they can trace me and arrest me.”
Just hours later, six officials of the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security of the Islamic Republic of Iran (MISIRI) appeared at Saharkhiz’s home in a small village in northern Iran. They arrested him and beat him severely, breaking his ribcage and both his wrists, before taking him to Iran’s notorious Evin prison where he has remained ever since. His crime: “insulting” the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Saharkhiz says that he was tracked down through monitoring technology designed and sold to Iran by Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN). Now he and his son Mehdi are suing NSN in U.S. Federal District Court for aiding and abetting Iranian government officials who committed human rights abuses against innocent Iranians.
NSN’s history of working with Iran dates back to 2007, when they established a joint venture company called Pishahang Communication Network Development Co. Their partner in the venture, the Takfam Company, is owned and operated by the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC). Utilizing NSN’s intelligence monitoring centers, the IRGC and other Iranian government agencies can monitor any form of communication inside Iran, from telephone conversations to text messages and emails.
NSN has asserted that they have ended their work with the Iranian government. “In 2008 Nokia Siemens Networks provided a monitoring center to allow Iranian law enforcement authorities to implement the Lawful Interception capability in MCI’s mobile network,” an NSN statement reads. “We have since divested the monitoring center business and, with the exception of some technical contractual links, no longer have any involvement with it.”
But NSN’s assertion, which has been made in publicized negotiations with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Shirin Ebadi and before a European Union panel investigating the matter, has been disputed by some.
“NSN still holds contractual links with Iran by providing support and maintenance services to Iran,” says Ali Herischi, the attorney who is representing Isa and Mehdi Saharkhiz.
Herischi explains that the surveillance company, Trovicor, which Nokia acquired in 2007, was sold to a German holding company, Perusa Partners Fund, in March 2009. The same Nokia executives that worked for Trovicor when it was acquired by Nokia still work there and, according to Herischi, still provide support for Iranian government officials committing human rights violations.
“[D]espite their PR spin, Nokia Siemens hasn’t really changed,” according to the nonprofit organization Access, which is leading a petition entitled No to Nokia. Access argues that NSN acknowledges continued links “with its old human tracking business” and maintains that “many of the senior staff who worked for Nokia Siemens now work for a private and unaccountable holding company which was set up to continue this dirty trade.“
Herischi wants these questions to be addressed. This past June, Congress barred all federal contracts for companies that provide monitoring and censorship technology to Iran. “Given the recent sanctions, it falls on the United States government to investigate NSN’s contractual relationship with Iran,” says Herischi.
But notwithstanding these questions, NSN has filed a motion to dismiss Mr. Saharkhiz’s case, and the court is currently investigating to determine whether to move forward with a trial. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an internet freedom group formed after the Iranian elections, questions NSN’s basis for having the case dismissed, calling for NSN to take responsibility for its actions. Nokia’s public statements, EFF says, “are sharply different than those it has made in court, where it had boldly claimed that because it is a corporation, it is categorically immune from responsibility for its role in aiding and abetting torture and illegal arrest.” EFF argues that “those hurt by its decision deserve their day in court.”
Herischi agrees. “NSN acted with the knowledge that Iran’s Intelligence Ministry has adopted means for illegal and unlawful interception under Iranian law and international laws and regulations. In effect, NSN are directly involved in the unlawful censoring and monitoring of journalists, activists, and citizens in Iran, including Mr. Isa Saharkhiz.”
“Each case is special on its own and requires its own investigation,” Herischi says. “We encourage more victims to come forth and seek justice for Nokia’s actions.”
Update: Isa Saharkhiz has voluntarily withdrawn his case against NSN due to potential concerns regarding a Second Circuit decision which held that corporations can not be subject to liability under the Alien Tort Statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1350.