The Sale of Surveillance Equipment To Iran, Syria, And Other Regimes in North Africa and the Middle East
This link will also take you to parliamentary questions tabled thus far:
November 24th 2011 – some of the parliamentary replies and the Foreign Secretary’s Statement:
After dark, on August 20th 1968 Warsaw Pact tanks trundled into Czechoslovakia, ending the brief Prague Spring. The Czech leader, Alexander Dubcek, and other reformers were taken into Soviet custody and transported on a Soviet military aircraft to Moscow. It was a dark night for democracy and for human rights.
Most of us felt we had to do “something” and, as a school boy, I organised a protest petition in the centre of my local town.
The crushing of the Prague Spring was a discouragement to many, but the events of 1968 helped pave the way for the dismantling of Communist dictatorships twenty years later. Britain can be justifiably proud of the role which it played in the defence of freedom.
Today, as events have been unfolding in the Arab Spring, our record is beginning to look Janus-faced.
No-one can doubt the courage and bravery of many of those who have given or risked their lives to secure human rights and freedoms – especially in Iran, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain – but instead of honouring that bravery, it brings shame on us that some British companies have been profiteering while democracy activists are tortured and killed.
It stretches credulity when British politicians make praise-worthy speeches about obnoxious regimes which close down the internet and when our Government stages conferences about the manipulation of cyberspace but simultaneously allows companies to sell the technology that enable those regimes to do just that. The rhetoric needs to catch up with the reality.
Take Iran, where the International Atomic Energy Agency have just issued fresh warnings about that country’s nuclear ambitions.
Iran is also responsible for systematic and egregious abuse of human rights. Thousands of political prisoners have been executed – including women and children. In the first half of this year an average of two people were executed each day.
Torture is routinely used in Iran. Demonstrators demanding reform have been rounded up and subjected to grotesque violations of their human dignity. Whipping, stoning, suspension from high ceilings or walls, submersion under water, mock executions and many other degrading treatments have all been reported.
Saeid Pourheydar is a young journalist who dared to speak out against the regime. He says Britain has “blood on its hands.”
Following his arrest last year he was held in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. During his violent interrogation, prison officers knocked out his four front teeth, subjected him to a mock execution, blindfolding him, placing a noose around his neck, and forcing him to stand on a stool for 25 minutes while he waited for death. Most of that, terrifying though it was, he had anticipated. Unanticipated, and deeply disturbing, was that it rapidly became clear that he was not merely fighting the regime but fighting British commercial interests too.
Pourheydar’s interrogators confronted him with his “entire phone history”. The regime had intercepted text messages and social networking which had enabled demonstrators to organise themselves and to let the rest of the world know what was happening.
Pourheydar has evidence that British software was used to intercept his messages along with his movements and details of who he had met: “You don’t even have to be on the phone, they can simply track you down just through your mobile phone when it is lying on a coffee table.” While in prison he says that around half of the political prisoners recounted similar experiences and that police had hunted them down using their cell phones. Mansoureh Shojaee, a women’s rights activist was also held at Evin prison where she says “My mobile phone was my enemy, my laptop was my enemy, my landline was my enemy.”
There is evidence to suggest that the terrifying ability of a repressive State to monitor a hundred thousand targets has in part been achieved with the surveillance technology sold to the Iranians by a British Company, Creativity Software. It enables the regime to track a target’s movement every 15 seconds. A device called “geofences” sounds an alarm in the monitoring centre when two people under surveillance come into contact. Bloomberg press agency have reported that Creativity Software made four sales in six months in the Middle East “for law enforcement purposes” . The company declined to say who were their clients.
A small NGO, Privacy International, has diligently collected information about the role of UK and other European companies and have uncovered what they describe as “a web of supply chains and subsidiaries that is becoming more expansive, more intricate and more lucrative every year.” They tell me that they have identified fifteen British companies that they believe have sold surveillance technology to repressive regimes –and there are many more European companies involved too.
Last month Privacy International assisted in revealing that the Syrian regime – where the United Nations now estimate that 3,500 civilians have been killed in the uprising – is using equipment and software manufactured by an American company. They also allege that an Italian company, a French company, and a British company, based in Germany, have also provided Syria’s regime with software enabling Bashar al-Assad’s intelligence organisation to intercept, scan, and catalogue the communications data and internet activity of the entire population of Syria.
In Bahrain democracy activists had their text messages read aloud to them as they were tortured.
One company markets its bespoke product by promising customers they will be able to “hit your target” and “defeat encryption.” Another uses a slide depicting an interrogation chair with a chain to restrain the suspect during interrogation. They promise “password recovery” and complete access to personal files.
The Department for Business – which continues to block my Private Members’ Bill to combat the re-export of arms – says “The Government actively discourages all trade with Iran” and that “it doesn’t appear that the exporter has broken the law.” So what did they do to deter these sales? And since when has it been lawful to sell equipment or technology which can lead to the torture of journalists and human rights activists?
The only difference between the sale of weapons to the Iranian regime and technologies used to target dissidents is semantic linguistics. Britain appears to be hiding behind the same old bottom-line canard that “if we don’t do it somebody else will.” And this is big business: one estimate is that interception and “the information intelligence market” generates $3 billion annually.
MMC Ventures, is an investor in Creativity Software and told The Daily Telegraph “Nothing is exported without UK approval.” So now we know.
We also now need to know what the Government are going to do to stop this. I have always held our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, to be an honourable man and he needs to urgently act.
The sale of this technology is as lethal and dangerous as any weapon. From their virtual watchtowers Assad, Ahmajinedad, and the rest, seek to repress and control their populations by their iron grip. And while we sell them surveillance technology we aid and abet these odious regimes, assisting them to stay in power.