Nokia Siemens Networks sued by Iranian activist for human rights abuses

An Iranian activist currently in detention in Iran has filed suit against Nokia Siemens Networks, Nokia and Siemens for human rights abuses. The activist was detained during civil unrest in the aftermath of last year's elections after his mobile phone communications were intercepted allegedly using lawful intercept capability provided to the Iranian government by Nokia Siemens Networks.
Written by James Farrar, Contributor

A law suit has been filed in US Federal Court this week against Nokia Siemens Networks as well as parent companies Nokia and Siemens by Isa Saharkhiz and his son, Mehdi Saharkhiz. Isa Saharkhiz was picked up by the Iranian authorities as a result of monitoring of his cell phone during the civil unrest in the aftermath of the Iranian elections last year. According to his lawyers:

Since his arrest, Iranian officials have tortured Mr. Saharkhiz and subjected him to other inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment. Currently, his health is deteriorating, suffering from untreated injuries caused by torture, resulting from Iranian authorities withholding necessary medical care.

Amnesty International confirmed the seriousness of the case in an alert issued last year:

Journalist Issa Saharkhiz was arrested on 4 July 2009. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience, held solely on account of the peaceful expression of his views, including regarding the outcome of the election and is at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.

Issa Saharkhiz (aged 56), journalist and a campaigner for presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi was arrested in Northern Iran on 4 July and taken away to an undisclosed location. His whereabouts have still not been disclosed by the Iranian authorities, despite his family and lawyer’s efforts putting him at danger of torture. Amnesty International fears that he has been subjected to enforced disappearance.

On 20 June 2009, his family home in Tehran was raided whilst he was travelling in Northern Iran and his computer and elections campaigning materials supporting the opposition presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi were confiscated. On 2 July, Issa Saharkhiz had posted an article on news website Rooz in which he criticized the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Sayed ‘Ali Khamenei

Among other things the law suit demands that Nokia Siemens Networks:

  • cease all unlawful support of intercepting centers of the Iranian government
  • help secure the release of Mr. Isa Saharkhiz through the use of their connections with the Iranian Government
  • be penalised to the extent that would prevent Defendants from harming others in the future in other similarly situated countries like Iran.

Nokia Siemens Network acknowledged the suit and declined to comment directly but have issued the following statement:

We will say that the misuse of communication technologies, intended for legitimate use, to infringe human rights is wrong. It is those who misuse technology who must be accountable for their actions. We condemn the abuse of technology to suppress political activity, and deplore any government, anywhere, that employs torture.

At issue here is the provision of lawful intercept capability to the Iranian government. NSN argue that they merely provide the same capability that is provided under license to most other countries in the world. Activists contend that lawful intercept capability is used in western countries only after a judicial review process to protect unwarranted intrusion where as in countries like Iran police and security forces may just use the capability immediately without any checks and balances on civil rights proections.

In the their 2009 sustainability report Nokia Siemens Network provided some more explanation:

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......... 

We are aware of credible reports that the Iranian authorities might have used technology we and other companies supplied to suppress political activity. Nokia Siemens Networks condemns such abuse, whether it takes place in Iran or elsewhere, and regrets having provided the monitoring center to Iran. 

Contrary to media reports, at no time has Nokia Siemens Networks provided “deep packet inspection” or any other capability designed to conduct content-base surveillance of internet or other communications traffic to Iran.

Expect this story to play out for many years ahead as there are pretty fundamental human rights and business ethics at stake. Does a telco serve the greater good by providing communications technology to Iranians en masse even if it enables surveillance by an oppressive regime. In a press release Nokia Siemens Networks blog justified its actions last summer:

Nokia Siemens Networks provides the mobile technology for millions of people in Iran to communicate with each other and the outside world. Nokia Siemens Networks firmly believes that providing people, wherever they are, with the ability to communicate ultimately benefits societies and brings greater prosperity.

 Do you agree with Nokia Siemens networks the greater good is served in such cases?

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