SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – An argument before the Ninth Circuit on Tuesday hinged on whether Cisco Systems intentionally assisted the Chinese government in its persecution of practitioners of a religion called Falun Gong.
The appellants claim a federal judge’s decision in 2014 that a group of Chinese and U.S. citizens could not pursue their claims against Cisco due to jurisdictional issues was incorrect.
Instead, their attorney Paul Hoffman argued Cisco manufactured a surveillance software program with explicit knowledge the Chinese government would use it to identify, arrest and in some cases torture and kill members of a religious sect.
Cisco’s attorney Kathleen Sullivan acknowledged the human-rights violations laid out in the complaint were “odious,” but said Cisco didn’t bear any responsibility.
“This lawsuit is inappropriate to bring against a company that lawfully exported internet infrastructure to China,” Sullivan told the three-judge panel.
To punish U.S. companies for the actions of a foreign government amounts to an end-around of U.S. foreign policy and opens a Pandora’s Box, she said.
But Hoffman said the case was akin to others where a company actively participated in a program they knew was being used to violate human rights.
“The allegations go far beyond that,” Hoffman said.
The Chinese Community Party has attempted to suppress Falun Gong since the 1990s.
The Falun Gong is a religion with both Buddhist and Taoist influences, combining meditation and spiritual exercises with a moral philosophy that emphasizes truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.
After its founding in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, the modern mind-body practice spread quickly throughout China, garnering as many as 70 million followers in 1999.
Around that time, the Chinese Communist Party began to view the religion as a threat, and enacted a crackdown and propaganda effort aimed at snuffing out the burgeoning practice.
This effort reportedly involved forced conversions, labor camps, extrajudicial killings, psychiatric abuse and other abusive forms of brainwashing perpetrated by the Chinese government.
Hoffman’s clients, consisting of an assortment of U.S. and Chinese citizens, say they were subjected to the abuses and claim Cisco was at least partially responsible.
In their 2011 lawsuit, the members of Falun Gong say Cisco developed a surveillance software called Golden Shield and then customized it with the specific intent to help the Chinese government identify and track down members despite knowing about the human-rights violations.
“They didn’t just develop the software, they developed an entire system to designed to collect information and these people’s backgrounds, and that information was used for the advancement of this persecution” Hoffman said at the hearing.
The lawsuit was initially dismissed by U.S. District Judge Edward Davila on technical grounds, agreeing with Cisco that the federal courts are not the appropriate venue for the case.
Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon attempted to delve into whether the software’s development in San Jose could trigger jurisdiction. But Sullivan said the religious group’s claims about Cisco’s actions in the Silicon Valley are vague and unspecific.
At one point, Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt asked whether Cisco’s actions could be compared to a company that makes the nerve gas Syrian President Bashar Assad used on his own people last month, and whether that constituted aiding and abetting.
“Yes, but that is not what happened in this case,” Sullivan said, adding none of the Cisco executives named in the lawsuit knew or believed they were aiding and abetting China’s human-rights violations.
The panel is expected to rule in the coming weeks.