* Human rights groups accuse French firm of complicity in torture
* Unlisted Qosmos denies sales to Assad government
* Surveillance equipment can be used to monitor opposition
By Thierry Lévêque
PARIS, July 26 (Reuters) - French police are investigating a software company accused by human rights groups of complicity in torture by supplying Syria with intelligence technology used to spy on and track its citizens, a judicial source told Reuters on Thursday.
Paris prosecutors ordered the preliminary inquiry into Paris-based Qosmos after France’s League of Human Rights and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) filed a complaint alleging “complicity in acts of torture”.
If charged, executives could face prison time under French law, although there is no guarantee that the probe will lead to charges or a deeper investigation.
The organisations cite internal Qosmos documents published last year on WikiLeaks which suggest that it furnished surveillance software to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
A lawyer, Benoit Chabert, for the privately owned company denied it had ever sold anything to Syria, but would not provide further information. “We are calmly waiting for the investigation,” he said.
A French foreign ministry spokesman said that Qosmos last exported its products to Syria in late 2011, but stopped in January 2012 after the European Union banned the export of telecoms monitoring equipment for use by the Syrian regime.
He noted that exports before then would not have been subject to any French or EU-imposed restrictions.
In their complaint, the human rights groups cite a Nov. 22, 2011 statement from Qosmos, following the publication of documents by WikiLeaks, saying the company had “withdrawn from the Syrian ‘Asfador’ project before the system was finalized.”
That project allowed the Syrian government to monitor and later arrest its political opponents, the groups say.
On its website, Qosmos says its technology provides its clients “deep visibility into traffic flows,” which analyses in real time numerical data transmitted over networks.
The possible sale of surveillance equipment to Syria poses a tricky legal question about whether suppliers could be expected to know how their products might be used.
A similar case related to the government of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and brought by the two same human rights groups is now in the French courts. In that case, French company Amesys is accused of providing technology that Gaddafi’s government used for political persecution.
Western powers say 17,000 people have been killed in Syria during a rebellion against Assad and accuse the government of torturing opponents. Assad has said he is fighting foreign-backed terrorists.
“In selling this (surveillance) material, you cannot ignore its end use,” said Patrick Baudouin, FIDH’s honorary president. “It’s equivalent to a weapon because it’s a tool of repression to arrest and torture.”
U.S. security officials have said that over the course of the past year, Iran has been providing electronic surveillance systems to Syria. (Writing by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Myra MacDonald)