It’s an interesting and convoluted case, which MTN strongly disputes even though the public relations aftermath is compelling the telco to reconsider its operations in countries where many businesses fear to operate.
MTN is battling claims that its operations in Afghanistan switched off the cellphone network at the insistence of the Taliban and that it paid protection money for its operations not to be attacked.
It is also confronted with huge financial losses should it lose the case, but it has some apparently strong legal arguments also.
The litigation demonstrates the complexity of its business over the years and probably explains its recent efforts to restructure its operations, including the determination to sell its Middle East operations including Syria, Yemen and ultimately Iran in the next three to five years.
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The Anti-Terrorism Act case is initiated by 385 Americans “including veterans, their family members, and the survivors of US military and civilian personnel injured or killed in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.”
The complainants are pursuing damages under the federal Anti-Terrorism Act and are represented by Sparacino PLLC, a Washington DC law firm.
Sparacino PLLC Managing Partner Ryan Sparacino told Daily Maverick 168; “MTN has not behaved like a normal telecom company, but rather like a rogue company, a corporate (James) Bond villain. Through their case, the families are trying to hold MTN accountable.”
MTN Group together with its subsidiaries MTN Dubai Limited and MTN Afghanistan are some of the defendants in the lawsuit.
The companies are accused of backing the Taliban, and that the support resulted in injuries and deaths of the plaintiffs or their family members.
The case, which was brought last December, names MTN and some six other firms including G4S International and Centerra Group LLC.
MTN filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed and its then Chief Executive Officer Rob Shuter told the media:
“We believe they have sued the wrong defendants in the wrong courts, on insufficient allegations.”
In June 2020, Sparacino PLLC filed an amended brief that comprised fresh allegations against MTN, which has presence in 21 countries in Africa and the Middle East.
MTN is familiar with legal warfare on foreign soil with, as in the case with Nigeria earlier this year, when they were accused of a security breach and fined $5.2 billion.
The legal brief, Document 82, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in June states that the matter refers to: “… companies with lucrative business in post-9/11 Afghanistan, and they all paid the Taliban to refrain from attacking their business interests.
“Those protection payments aided and abetted terrorism by directly funding an insurgency that killed and injured thousands of Americans…
“Most contractors viewed terrorist protection payments as the cost of doing business and they openly admitted as much. Typical statements by companies operating in Taliban-controlled areas included: ‘I pay the Taliban not to attack my goods, and I don’t care what they do with the money’.”
Firms typically paid the Taliban in amounts between 20 and 40 per cent of the project being “protected.”
It seems pretty obvious – a standard operating procedure for foreign businesses operating in the region like a “normal” protection racket – but the document also proceeds to state that the telecom firm appeared to have been in deeper than the “normal” run-of-the-mill brown envelope protection payments.
“The MTN Defendants went beyond financing Taliban operations and went into active coordination.
“Not only did MTN make payments that financed terrorism; it also deactivated its cellular network at night because the Taliban asked it to.
“Nighttime cellular service was important to Coalition intelligence-collection efforts…”
When asked why it complied, MTN stated it could not ‘afford to be seen as siding with the Afghan government against the Taliban’…
“Defendants’ conduct supported the Taliban’s terrorist campaign against Americans in Afghanistan.
“When Defendants paid the Taliban not to attack them, they were not reducing the overall threat of violence; they were redirecting the attacks to other targets – including Plaintiffs and their family members.
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“At the same time, Defendants’ financing intensified the Taliban’s terrorist insurgency.”
Sparacino PLLC Managing Partner Ryan Sparacino said “MTN is effectively a joint venture partner with the IRGC, Iran’s leading terrorist organisation.”
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or IRGC is designated by the Counter Terrorism Project as a military, terrorist, transnational and vicious group.
In April last year, the United States government formally classified IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation.
MTN will attempt to have the litigation dismissed, saying US courts have no jurisdiction over it.
“The families believe MTN can and must be held accountable in an American court,” Sparacino told Daily Maverick 168