PASADENA, Calif. (CN) — A divided Ninth Circuit panel on Friday revived claims accusing tech giant Cisco of aiding and abetting human rights abuses against the Falun Gong group by the Chinese government, rejecting a lower court's finding that the plaintiffs hadn't met their burden under the Alien Tort Statute.
The plaintiffs, consisting of a consortium of Chinese and U.S. citizens, belong to Falun Gong, a Chinese religious group with Buddhist and Taoist influences. The group practices meditation and espouses a nonviolent philosophy that is centered around compassion and truthfulness. The religion has millions of followers.
According to the plaintiffs' 2011 lawsuit, Cisco Systems developed a surveillance software called Golden Shield and sold it to the Chinese Communist Party. The software was designed specifically to help the Chinese government track down members of Falun Gong, and the plaintiffs say Cisco developed Golden Shield even though it knew the software would be used to commit human rights violations.
The Chinese Communist Party began cracking down on Falun Gong members in the 1990s, viewing the group’s practices as a threat. Efforts to disband the religion reportedly involved forced detainment, conversions, labor camps, extrajudicial killings, and torture.
U.S. District Judge Edward Davila dismissed Alien Tort Statute claims after finding the plaintiffs did not meet the standard for aiding and abetting under international law. He also dismissed claims against two Cisco executives under the Torture Victim Protections Act, finding the statute does not provide for accomplice liability.
The plaintiffs appealed, and on Friday U.S. Circuit Judges A. Wallace Tashima and Marsha Berzon, both Bill Clinton appointees, revived the bulk of the case.
"We conclude that plaintiffs’ allegations, accepted as true, are sufficient to state a plausible claim that Cisco provided essential technical assistance to the douzheng of Falun Gong with awareness that the international law violations of torture, arbitrary detention, disappearance, and extrajudicial killing were substantially likely to take place," Berzon wrote for the majority, using the word that refers to the crackdowns by the Chinese government on supposed enemies of the Communist Party.
The majority revived Alien Tort Statute claims and remanded them for further proceedings, finding the plaintiffs plausibly claimed Cisco “took action domestically that aided and abetted violations of international law.”
The majority also reversed Davila's dismissal of plaintiff Charles Lee’s Torture Victim Protections Act claim against Cisco executives John Chambers and Freddy Cheung, finding the act provides a private right of action against those who aid and abet torture or killing.
“We reverse the district court’s dismissal of plaintiff Lee’s TVPA claim against Chambers and Cheung. We hold that the TVPA encompasses claims against those who aid and abet torture, and that the complaint adequately alleges that Chambers and Cheung did so. We remand the TVPA claim for further proceedings,” Berzon wrote for the majority.
Chambers and Cheung dodged Alien Tort Statute claims, however, since it can't be applied extraterritorially.
U.S. Circuit Judge Morgen Christen, a Barack Obama appointee, joined her colleagues' findings on the Torture Victim Protections Act claim and applauded their analysis of the Alien Tort Statute claims — but dissented.
"The majority’s careful and cogent analysis of aiding and abetting liability under the Alien Tort Statute in Part I is consistent with the views of our sister circuits, and in an appropriate case, I would likely join it," Christen wrote in her 10-page dissent. "I do not do so here because I conclude that recognizing liability for aiding and abetting alleged human rights violations, committed in China and against Chinese nationals by the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government’s Ministry of Public Security, is inconsistent with the purpose of the Alien Tort Statute. I would affirm the dismissal of plaintiffs’ Alien Tort Statute claims on this basis, and go no further.”
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