French spyware bosses indicted for their role in the torture of dissidents

French spyware bosses indicted for their role in the torture of dissidents

Senior executives at a French spyware firm have been indicted for the company’s sale of surveillance software to authoritarian regimes in Libya and Egypt that resulted in the torture and disappearance of dissidents.

While high-tech surveillance is a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide, it is rare for companies or individuals to face legal consequences for selling such technologies—even to notorious dictatorships or other dangerous regimes. But charges in the Paris Judicial Court against leaders at Amesys, a surveillance company that later changed its name to Nexa Technology, claim that the sales to Libya and Egypt over the last decade led to the crushing of opposition, torture of dissidents, and other human rights abuses.

The former head of Amesys, Philippe Vannier, and three current and former executives at Nexa technologies were indicted for “complicity in acts of torture” for selling spy technology to the Libyan regime. French media report that Nexa president Olivier Bohbot, managing director Renaud Roques, and former president Stéphane Salies face the same charges for surveillance sales to Egypt.

“When you look at attempts to hold these companies accountable, you see a lot of failures … we still face strong obstacles.”

Clémence Bectarte, International Federation for Human Rights

The charges were brought by brought by the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes unit of the court, but the case began 10 years ago when Amesys sold its system for listening in on internet traffic to the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Six victims of the spying testified in France about being arrested and tortured by the regime, an experience that they say is a direct result of these spying tools. In 2014, the company sold surveillance software to Egyptian president Abdel al-Sisi shortly after he took control of the country in a military coup.

The complaints, filed by the International Federation for Human Rights, or FIDH, and the French League for Human Rights, allege that the company did not have government permission to sell its technologies to Libya or Egypt because oversight was weak and at times nonexistent. The claims led to an independent judicial investigation against Amesys/Nexa, which is still ongoing. Next, the judges will decide whether to send the case to criminal court or dismiss it if there is not sufficient evidence—but the indictment is a major step forward and points toward the prospect that the judges will view the evidence as potentially strong enough to support a criminal trial.   

Clémence Bectarte, who has led the case for the last decade as a lawyer for the FIDH, says it is a significant victory, but that there is still a long way to go.

“I don’t want to be too optimistic, because past experience has shown that we should not be,” Bectarte says. “When you look at attempts to hold these companies accountable, you see a lot of failures because of insufficient legal frameworks, an imbalance of power because these corporations sometimes have influence on state decisions, a lack of political willingness—all of which means we still face strong obstacles.”

Decisions and non-decisions

Gaddafi bought packet monitoring spyware—surveillance tools that eavesdrop on all internet traffic—from Amesys during the country’s civil war.  That sale, reportedly made thanks to a favor from former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was himself convicted on corruption charges earlier this year, led to aggressive use of the systems against the regime’s opponents. 

The 2014 sale to Egypt, meanwhile, came just one month after a military coup led to Sisi’s control of the country. Egypt allegedly bought interception technology allowing the government to more effectively spy on phone calls and messages of its target. According to Humans Rights Watch, the country is “experiencing its worst human rights crisis in many decades” under Sisi, including surveillance and imprisonment of journalists and dissidents critical of the regime. 

While most countries have some rules and regulations regarding the export of surveillance tools and other weapons, the French case is complex because of the background for each deal. The sales to Libya were never formally approved by the French government because there was no existing regulation covering such technology when the deal was originally made in 2007. In the case of Egypt, the French government did not explicitly approve or disapprove of the sale, a non-decision that nevertheless allowed it to move forward. 

“These cases shed light on the necessity for governments to have stronger regulations and export controls over surveillance technologies with potential to be used in human rights abuses,” says Bectarte. 

The same investigation is also looking into sales of surveillance technology to Saudi Arabia. Bectarte could not comment on that specific case because of the ongoing investigation.

“I want to underline the courage of the individuals who came to court to testify about what they had suffered, their arrests, and the acts of torture they had been victims of,” she says. “When successes do happen, it relies on the determination of victims and civil society. We need to continue the fight, because corporate accountability is essential. There are objective links between corporate activities and human rights abuses.”

Nexa did not respond to a request for comment.

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