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Yahoo! has asked a US court to dismiss a lawsuit accusing it of "aiding and abetting" acts of torture and other human rights abuses against Chinese dissidents. The company handed over information about its users to the Chinese government, which led to the arrests of the dissidents.

Yahoo! is fighting a suit was filed by the Washington-based World Organization for Human Rights, on behalf of several plaintiffs. They include Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who was locked up for 10 years after being accused of leaking state secrets to foreigners and Wang Xiaoning, jailed for "incitement to subvert state power" through his postings on Yahoo! Groups.

In its filing Yahoo! says Wang and Shi "assumed the risk of harm when they chose to use Yahoo! China email and group list services to engage in activity they knew violated Chinese law". The company said it has no legal duty to protect them from risk of harm.

Yahoo! filed a 51-page response to the lawsuit on Monday, in federal court in San Francisco. The company said it provided the information, but was compelled to do so by the Chinese government. Yahoo! argues that American courts are not the place to air foreign political grievances.

"Yahoo! deeply sympathizes with the plaintiffs and their families and does not condone the suppression of their rights and liberty by their government," said the company in 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."

Morton Sklar of the World Organization for Human Rights countered to BBC News: "Even if it was lawful in China, that does not take away from Yahoo's obligation to follow not just Chinese law, but US law and international legal standards as well, when they do business abroad."

Microsoft, Yahoo! and several blogging services last week signed a pact with the Chinese government that "encourages" big name web players to record the identities of bloggers and censor content. According to the French advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, the agreement stipulates "self-discipline". Translation: to store the real names and contact details of Chinese bloggers and delete "illegal and bad" information from user comments.

Although most of the companies have been unforthcoming about their participation in the agreement, Microsoft has told us it does not plan to register real names and contact details. ®

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