China dissident sues Yahoo

Miguel Helft in The New York Times reports that a Chinese dissident — Wang Xiaoning — and his wife sued Yahoo in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California for abetting the Chinese authorities in their torturing of Wang, who was beaten and imprisoned after Yahoo supplied contents of his e-mails to the authorities.

The suit seeks damages for Wang, his wife Yu Ling, and other unnamed defendants; as well as an injunction that would bar Yahoo from identifying dissidents to China’s authorities.

A Yahoo spokesman, Jim Cullinan, had this to say: “Companies doing business in China are forced to comply with Chinese law…[When government officials present the company with a lawful request for information about a Yahoo user,] 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.”

This suit was filed in the wake of Yahoo’s notoriety for, in 2004, identifying at least four dissidents and journalists to the Chinese government, leading to these citizens’ arrests and imprisonment.

In the case of Wang, the suit alleges that he had anonymously distributed journal articles calling for democratic reform via Yahoo Groups in 2000-2001, and that a Yahoo subsidiary in Hong Kong provided Chinese police with his personal information, linking him to the articles.

In September 2002, Wang was arrested by Chinese authorities, then abused and detained for one year, and then sentenced to ten years imprisonment. The suit against him in the Chinese court referred to Yahoo Hong Kong telling investigators that his e-mail account was used to post the articles.

The suit rests on the Alien Tort Claim Acts, letting foreigners sue in American courts for violations of international law. The complaint alleges that Yahoo violated the Torture Victims Protection Act, and so is liable for suit by Chinese nationals under the ATCA.