A Chinese political prisoner and his wife sued Yahoo in federal court yesterday, accusing the company of abetting the commission of torture by helping Chinese authorities identify political dissidents who were later beaten and imprisoned.
The lawsuit, filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victims Protection Act, is believed to be the first of its kind against an Internet company for its activities in China.
Wang Xiaoning (
"I hope to be able to have Yahoo promise that in the future they will stop this kind of wrongdoing," said Yu, speaking through an interpreter in a telephone interview from San Francisco.
Yahoo said it had not yet seen the lawsuit, filed in US District Court for the Northern District of California, and could not comment on the allegations.
"Companies doing business in China are forced to comply with Chinese law," said Jim Cullinan, a Yahoo spokesman. When government officials present the company with a lawful request for information about a Yahoo user, he said, "Yahoo China will not know whether the demand for information is for a legitimate criminal investigation or is going to be used to prosecute political dissidents."
Several US Internet companies, including Cisco Systems, Google and Microsoft, have been criticized by some politicians and human rights groups, accusing them of helping the government monitor and censor the Internet in China.
Yahoo has come under sharp criticism. Human rights groups say that Yahoo has helped identify at least four people, including the journalist Shi Tao (師濤) in 2004, who have since been imprisoned for voicing dissent in cyberspace.
"Our concern is that Yahoo, as far as we know, is continuing this practice," said Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights USA and a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
According to the lawsuit, Wang distributed online several journal articles calling for democratic reform and a multiparty system in China. He did so anonymously by posting the articles in a Yahoo Group in 2000 and 2001. The lawsuit contends that Yahoo HK, a wholly owned Yahoo subsidiary based in Hong Kong, provided police with information linking Wang to the postings.
Cullinan of Yahoo disputed those claims.
"Yahoo HK does not exchange info with Yahoo China or give information to mainland Chinese security forces," he said.
Yahoo transferred its China operations to Alibaba.com in 2005, and owns a minority stake in that company, which is based in China.
On Sept. 1, 2002, Wang was arrested by Chinese authorities, according to the lawsuit, which says he was later kicked and beaten and was detained until September 2003, when he was sentenced to 10 years.
The lawsuit says that the Chinese court's judgment noted that Yahoo HK told investigators that the e-mail account used to disseminate the postings belonged to Wang.
The Alien Tort Claims Act, enacted in 1789, lets foreigners sue in US courts for fundamental violations of international law, like torture and genocide. It has been used in recent years to sue people who have violated basic human rights.
"The plaintiffs in this case have a lot of barriers to overcome," said Allen Weiner, a professor of international law at Stanford.
It was unclear, he said, whether the law would apply to a company like Yahoo.
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