South Africa's MTN asks U.S. court to dismiss anti-terrorism case in Afghanistan

JOHANNESBURG, April 30 (Reuters) - South Africa’s MTN Group said on Thursday it has asked a U.S. court to dismiss a case filed against it in December accusing the telecoms company of paying protection money to militant Islamist groups in Afghanistan.

It said in a statement its legal counsel had submitted a formal written request to the U.S. court to end the lawsuit and grant a judgment in its favour.

“Put simply, plaintiffs have sued the wrong defendants in the wrong court based on insufficient allegations,” MTN said.

It cited the reason being that “the court lacks jurisdiction over MTN, which does not operate in the United States, and because the complaint does not allege any conduct by MTN that would have violated the Anti-Terrorism Act”.

The U.S. embassy in South Africa did not answer calls, while U.S. Department of Justice officials were not available outside of business hours.

Under U.S. law and procedures, MTN is not permitted at this stage of the lawsuit to challenge or contest the factual allegations made against the company, it said, adding that therefore the motion to dismiss focuses on the lack of jurisdiction and the legal insufficiency of the claims.

The complaint was filed in the United States District Court in the District of Columbia in December.

It alleges that several firms, including MTN Group and certain of its subsidiary companies such as MTN Afghanistan, violated the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act by paying protection money to al Qaeda and the Taliban, thereby providing material support to known terrorist organisations.

It seeks damages on behalf of U.S. military members and civilians killed or wounded in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2017.

MTN Group operates in 21 countries in Africa and the Middle East, where it previously faced scrutiny over its Iranian operations.

In February last year a former South African ambassador to Iran was arrested on charges that he took a bribe to help MTN win a $31.6 billion licence to operate there. MTN has denied the allegations.

The company has also faced costly disputes over unregistered SIM cards, tax and dividend repatriation in Nigeria. (Reporting by Nqobile Dludla; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)