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Yahoo files to dismiss China human rights suit

Two Chinese journalists allege the Internet giant "willingly" handed over information that led to their arrest and prosecution.

Yahoo on Monday filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by two Chinese journalists who alleged that the Internet company and its subsidiaries "willingly" handed over information about their online writing to the People's Republic of China.

The case hinges on a lawsuit filed in April in the U.S. District Court for Northern California. Plaintiffs Shi Tao, Wang Xiaoning--two pro-democracy advocates--and Yu Ling (Wang's wife) charged Yahoo and its Hong Kong subsidiary with allegedly divulging information about their online activity and pro-democracy writing to Chinese authorities, an act that ultimately caused their arrest and prosecution, according to the filing. Both men were sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In a 51-page motion to dismiss, filed with the district court, Yahoo argued that the case has no merit.

"This is a lawsuit by citizens of China imprisoned for using the Internet in China to express political views in violation of China law. It is a political case challenging the laws and actions of the Chinese government. It has no place in the American courts," according to Yahoo's motion.

The motion is the latest development in a long-running dispute over the responsibilities of U.S. Internet companies in general to protect the anonymity of users in the foreign countries where they operate. Yahoo Hong Kong is a focus of the case because at the time of the plaintiffs' Internet activity, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo was the sole owner of that subsidiary; but now, Chinese company Alibaba holds a majority stake in that company.

Yet Yahoo is not alone in facing these kinds of complaints: Google, Microsoft and other U.S. Internet companies have come under fire for their policies of cooperating with the Chinese government in recent years.

According to Monday's filing, Chinese journalist Shi, a reporter at Contemporary Business News in mainland China, was prosecuted after he e-mailed foreign reporters information issued by the Chinese government warning of possible trouble around the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Shi sent the document through an anonymous account, but the authorities tracked him down because Yahoo's Hong Kong subsidiary allegedly supplied an IP address connecting a PC to a message containing his information. The government considered the content of the e-mail a "state secret," according to the filing.

Shi was arrested in November 2004 and pleaded guilty to the charges four months later. He's currently serving a 10-year sentence in a prison known for abusive treatment of prisoners, according to the filing.

Shi's co-plaintiff, Wang, also worked as an editor at a pro-democracy publication in mainland China, before being imprisoned by the government for "incitement to subvert state power," according to the filing. He was convicted in July 2003 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His wife is suing Yahoo and its subsidiary because she has endured "severe psychological and emotional suffering" as a result of the detention, according to the filing.

Yahoo spokeswoman Kelley Benander said the company is a strong believer of human rights and it respects freedom of expression and privacy around the world. But she said that the case is about a political and diplomatic issue, and not about a legal issue.

"Yahoo deeply sympathizes with the plaintiffs and their families and does not condone the suppression of their rights and liberty by their government," according to the filing.

"But Yahoo has no control over the sovereign government of the People's Republic of China, the laws it passes, and the manner in which it enforces its laws," according to the filing. "Neither (Yahoo company) can be held liable for the independent acts of the PRC just because a former Yahoo subsidiary in China obeyed a lawful government request for the collection of evidence relevant to a pending investigation."