SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — A survivor of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is suing Yahoo! for helping China capture political dissidents, claiming in a federal lawsuit that he was arrested, tortured and imprisoned after the web provider gave the contents of his email account to party officials.
Ning Xianhua, a Chinese activist who now resides in New York, claims Yahoo! agreed to help the People’s Republic of China apprehend and torture Chinese citizens who spread pro-democracy messages over the internet as a condition of being allowed to enter the Chinese market.
“PRC officials often identify political dissidents through surveillance or hacking measures. The Yahoo! Defendants’ ongoing secret cooperation and agreement with the Chinese communist regime greatly facilitated the regime’s identification, detention, and repression of Chinese pro-democracy freedom advocates,” his lawsuit says, adding that Yahoo! concealed its activities from investors and the U.S. government.
Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang and CEO Terry Semel are named as defendants.
Ning’s lawsuit says Yahoo! turned over his private information, including his phone number, IP address, and the contents of his emails, after Chinese authorities requested it.
Prior to his arrest, Ning had taken careful steps to avoid detection by the Communist party by encrypting his emails.
“He thought that through Yahoo!’s services, he could fight for democracy while protecting his identity from PRC officials. Mr. Ning did not know that defendants had agreed to provide and did provide the communist Chinese regime with his confidential communications and other Protected Information,” his lawsuit states.
“Enabled by the Yahoo! defendants’ illegal, unethical, and unscrupulous business practices, the Chinese communist regime used Mr. Ning’s Protected Information—including his pro-democracy communications stored on his private Yahoo! email account—to arrest and torture him.”
According to the complaint, Ning was arrested by twelve armed PRC officers at a restaurant in Chengdu. He was then driven 50 hours to his hometown of Shenyang where he was held in solitary confinement at a state security building, deprived of sleep, beaten by party officers and eventually shackled to the infamous spiked “Tiger Chair” for prolonged interrogation sessions in which he was repeatedly threatened with death.
Ning said his interrogators’ questions centered on his email exchanges with overseas activists and the pro-democracy writings Ning disseminated through his account, specifically one essay titled The Envisions on Establishing Unions in Northeast China.
He was eventually convicted of subversion and spent two years and four months in a Shenyang prison. He also did unpaid manual labor for ten hours a day making Christmas decorations at Dabei Prison in Shenyang, where he was punished with longer hours and beatings if he failed to meet his assigned quota.
“Importantly, Yahoo! Inc., defendant Semel, and defendant Yang knew that the PRC would subject Mr. Ning to these abuses if they turned over his private emails and other Protected Information to the communist regime. But they did it anyway to secure access to the lucrative Chinese market,” his lawsuit states.
“Operating from Yahoo!’s California headquarters, the Yahoo! defendants made a conscious decision to help the PRC arbitrarily arrest, unfairly imprison, and brutally torture Mr. Ning—and others—to preserve their business interests in China.”
After his release, Ning was arrested, detained and tortured again. Chinese authorities also destroyed his ancestral home in Shenyang as well as his parents’ house in retaliation for his anti-Communist advocacy, his complaint says. Released on bail, Ning fled to Thailand where the U.S. embassy helped him gain asylum.
Ning is seeking damages for the permanent loss of bodily function and disfigurement he sustained during his torture and imprisonment as well as reimbursement for his medical expenses and the the loss of his home.
“Mr. Ning hopes that, through this lawsuit, the Yahoo! defendants are finally made to answer for the torture and injuries befalling Mr. Ning as a result of their misconduct. He also hopes that the Yahoo! defendants reveal the identity of other political dissidents that they helped imprison pursuant to their agreement with the PRC communist regime,” his lawsuit states. “So long as the victims of Yahoo! defendants’ misconduct remain unknown, they are not likely to receive the help they need.”
His counsel was unavailable for comment late Wednesday, but in a statement, Hoffman said, “Mr. Ning’s human rights were cruelly violated by Yahoo’s secret actions with Chinese authorities. U.S. law forbids this kind of complicity in these egregious human rights violations. We are proud to represent Mr. Ning in seeking the justice he deserves under U.S. and international law.”
This is not the first time Yahoo! has found itself in legal trouble for outing Chinese dissidents. In 2007, Congress investigated its role in the arrest of journalist Shi Tao. Though it initially claimed no involvement, Yahoo! was found to have disclosed details of his email account to the Chinese government. Yahoo! set up a Human Rights Fund Trust fund in 2007 to atone for handing dissidents over to China, but former political prisoners later sued the company for depleting its assets. An appellate court upheld the lawsuit in a ruling earlier this year.