Former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi [US Navy photo/Wikipedia]

France usually doesn’t mete out justice like this, but it appears to be going forward in a precedent setting international legal case.

Accorting to MIT Technology Review, senior execs 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.

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, the report said.

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.

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, the report said.

“The indictments are unprecedented. When left unchecked, the activities of surveillance companies can facilitate grave human rights violations and repression, including the crimes of torture and enforced disappearance,” said Amnesty Tech Director, Rasha Abdul Rahim.

“These indictments send a clear message to surveillance companies that they are not above the law, and could face criminal accountability for their actions.

“This case also shows the urgent need for states to implement a human rights regulatory framework that governs the sale and transfer of surveillance equipment,” he said.

“Until such a framework is put in place, a moratorium on the purchase, sale, transfer, and use of surveillance equipment to governments linked to human rights violations should be enforced.”

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, the report said.

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.”

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 report said. 

Nexa is accused of selling an updated version of Amesys’ software, Cerebro, which can trace messages and calls in real-time, to Egyptian coup leader turned President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s government in 2014.

The investigations were aided by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and are based on an investigation by the magazine Telerama which revealed the sale in March 2014 of a system worth €10 million (US$11.9 million) which authorities said was to fight the Muslim Brotherhood.

“This is a considerable step that demonstrates that what we see every day on the ground – the links between the activities of these surveillance companies and violations of human rights – can be considered criminal and lead to complicity charges,” lawyers for FIDH said in a statement.

Lawyer and FIDH honorary president Michel Tubiana said that he hopes the French authorities undertake “resolutely to take all measures to prevent the export of and dual-use and surveillance technologies to countries which seriously violate human rights.”

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 more complex.

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 made in 2007, the report said.

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. 

Sources: MIT Technology Review, Amnesty International, Middle East Monitor