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Yahoo has asked a California court to throw out a case brought by the World Organization for Human Rights USA, claiming the company helped the Chinese government violate the rights of a writer who was jailed after Yahoo turned over his e-mail records.
Yahoo claims that its Chinese operations are bound by Chinese law, despite the company's sympathy for dissidents. The lawsuit, posted on the human rights organization's Web site, states that Yahoo voluntarily provided the information.
By doing so, the company "knowingly and willfully aided and abetted in the commission of torture and other major abuses violating international law that caused plaintiffs severe physical and mental suffering," the complaint states.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that the case should be heard in California because it contains allegations of violations of international and state laws regarding the way businesses conduct themselves, U.S. agreements to protect people from torture, and provisions against privacy violations.
The case was filed on behalf of Wang Xiaoning and his wife of 27 years, Yu Ling. It claims that Yahoo signed a voluntary agreement in 2002 to censor and monitor its Chinese users. It states that several international groups warned the company that information it collects would be used to harm Chinese citizens and that the California-based Internet company profited from its cooperation with the Chinese government.
It claims that Wang, 57, suffers from malnutrition and beatings in a secretive forced labor camp for political prisoners. It states that Wang has been deprived of sunlight and the ability to see his mother before she died.
It also states that Yu has been subjected to police surveillance, shame, and isolation from friends who were required to register with the government before visiting with her. It states that Yu feared telling family members her husband was in prison and disclosed the situation only after her own mother died and family members called her husband a bad man for not attending the funeral.
Yahoo filed a 40-page response Monday, claiming that every country has the right to regulate speech within its borders and the case challenges the Chinese government. It claims that the plaintiffs risked harm by choosing Yahoo China e-mail and group list services to engage in behaviors that they knew violated Chinese laws.
Yahoo said that free speech rights in the United States are not valid in China and added that the lawsuit could affect international relations between the two countries.
The plaintiffs' lawyer told the BBC that Yahoo still had a legal obligation to follow U.S. laws, uphold ethics, and abide by international legal standards.
Other Internet companies have acknowledged cooperation with foreign governments identified by global human rights groups as human rights abusers by blocking access to certain Web sites. Such countries usually require a degree of cooperation from companies doing business within their borders.
Yahoo representatives could not be reached immediately for comment Tuesday.
The plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages to be determined during a trial.