MTN Group Ltd have been accused of offering to snoop on its subscribers on behalf of the Iranian defence department. Photo: Tracey Adams

The SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has been asked to investigate allegations that telecoms giant MTN Group Ltd might have committed “human rights violations” by offering to snoop on its subscribers on behalf of the Iranian defence department.

This is one of several allegations made in court papers before the District Court of Columbia, Washington DC, where rival cellphone company Turkcell is suing MTN and its subsidiary, MTN International (Mauritius) Ltd, for R32 billion.

Turkcell and its Dutch-registered partner, the East Asian Consortium, have accused MTN of committing “corrupt acts” to “obtain illegally what it could not obtain through honest competition” – a lucrative cellphone operator’s licence in Iran.

According to Turkcell, MTN achieved this by embarking on a “premeditated programme of corruption through bribery and trading in influence”.

MTN has denied wrongdoing and has appointed renowned SA-born jurist Lord Hoffmann to head up an “independent investigation” into the allegations.

It has accused Turkcell of using “frivolous litigation” in the US to “extort money” from it.

In a statement dated March 12, MTN criticised Turkcell, saying it was “refusing” to co-operate with the Hoffmann inquiry.

Among the allegations are that MTN: promised to deliver SA’s favourable vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency; promised to help Iran gain access to SA weapons in apparent violation of international sanctions; and engaged in “outright bribery of high-level government officials in Iran and SA”.

“MTN created a scheme to displace Turkcell as the licence holder by leveraging political tensions in Iran and taking advantage of its political connections within SA and Iran,” the court papers say.

The DA’s spokesman on defence, David Maynier, has asked the SAHRC to look into allegations that MTN sweetened the deal by agreeing to “facilitate” the installation of “eavesdropping technology” on its devices, providing Iran’s defence ministry with access to subscriber e-mails and voice and text content.

In a letter to the SAHRC, Maynier expressed concern that the MTN Group might have been “directly or indirectly responsible” for such abuses.

The DA MP said in a statement that the allegations of possible political surveillance were “compounded” by reports that MTN Irancell, in which MTN International owned a 49 percent stake:

* Purchased a system from Nokia Siemens Networks in 2008 to monitor local voice calls.

* Bought a system from AdaptiveMobile in 2008 that could filter, block and store SMSes.

* Acquired systems from Ericsson in 2009 and Creativity Software in 2009 and 2011 to monitor the location of users.

* And that, according to former MTN Irancell employees, “law enforcement officers and security agencies had access to the information in the possession of MTN Irancell”.

Maynier noted that “dissidents”, such as journalist Saeid Pourheydar, “were confronted, during their detention in the infamous Evin Prison, by intelligence officers with transcripts of their cellphone calls, e-mails and text messages”.

“I am particularly concerned therefore about the role the MTN Group (Ltd) played, through its subsidiary MTN Irancell, in the crackdown on the political opposition during and after the presidential election on June 12, 2009,” the DA MP wrote.

MTN Group spokesman Xolisa Vapi said yesterday it was “difficult” for the company to comment as the matter was now the subject of a court case.

“We will therefore not be commenting further,” he said.

Vapi also referred this newspaper to a set of documents uploaded to MTN’s website on Friday.

One of these, on frequently asked questions on the Turkcell allegations, says that if the Hoffmann inquiry “uncovers evidence of bribery or other improper conduct”, MTN will “fully engage with SA law enforcement authorities” to investigate the claims.

“MTN has a zero tolerance policy for corrupt and unethical business,” the document says.

Phuthama Nhleko – who headed MTCN during the period in question – has denied any wrongdoing. - Political Bureau