(CNS) - In what is seen as a major victory for pro-democracy forces in China, a U.S. district judge has given the go-ahead for discovery in a lawsuit that alleges U.S. companies are profiting from slave-made goods from China.
The July 9 ruling by District Judge Thomas F. Hogan to proceed to with discovery against the Bank of China and the Adidas Corporation opens the door for the subpoena of high-ranking Communist Party officials in China, and the prosecution of top sporting goods executives in the United States.
"This ruling is a land-breaking success. Slave labor is widespread in China, particularly among the dissident communities," Ning Ye, chairman of the Free China Foundation, an organization that encompasses 30 dissident organization inside and outside China, told CNSNews.com.
The judge ruled in a suit brought by Mr. Bao Ge, a Chinese dissident, and several others who were imprisoned in Communist Party-run prisons there, alleging they were forced under inhuman conditions to make soccer balls for the Adidas Company at various times until 1998.
Bao Ge, the chief plaintiff, was paroled to the U.S. last year as a "public interest Parolee" under a deal the United States has with the Chinese government.
Bao Ge's lawyers have begun document discovery against the Bank of China and the Adidas Corporation. This includes the subpoenaing of documents from Adidas and the Bank of China, including electronic information on computers, and the examination of U.S. customs records and currency transactions.
If they can prove the defendants knowingly made money from the sale of slave-made goods, the judge will rule on whether the court has jurisdiction to prosecute top-ranking Chinese Communists.
"If we show they are knowingly selling slave-made goods in the United States, then there's no question they'll be subject to jurisdiction," John Hemenway, chief lawyer for the plaintiffs, told CNSNews.com.
The suit alleges the plaintiffs "were coerced into waxing, stitching, sewing and making 'Adidas' soccer balls 14 - 18 hours a day under inhumane conditions." Beatings with belts, tortures of various horrifying kinds, exposure of their bodies to mosquitoes bites and needle wounds, high voltage electrical prod shocks and other inhumane treatments such as malnutrition, lack of medical attention and sleep deprivation also are alleged.
One of the chief defendants is Li Peng, the man said to have ordered tanks against pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, an action analysts believe resulted in the deaths of 5,000 dissidents in Beijing and in subsequent crackdowns across the country.
"We have plenty of people in the U.S. who will testify they were forced to make Adidas soccer balls while in prison camps in China," Ning Ye, who is also a commentator with Radio Free Asia, told CNSNews.com.
Numerous calls by CNSNews.com to the Adidas Corporation in Portland, Oregon, for comment were not returned. CNSNews.com calls to the Bank of China also were not returned.
About 1.2 million enslaved political prisoners and petty criminals work in Communist Party-run prisons in China, observers believe. Lawyers are asking for $1 million punitive and $1 million compensatory damages for each one under anti-slavery and anti-torture statutes that were used successfully against South American dictators, and against Filipino officials who committed crimes under Ferdinand Marcos.
In recent years, activity under the anti-slavery statute has increased, particularly in cases involving Arab countries who permit the enslavement of Christians. Hemenway also is invoking the Torture Victim Protections Act, which Congress passed in 1991, to prosecute the defendants.
The Bank of China says that as a sovereign entity it is immune to investigation, a claim Hemenway dismisses.
"Even if it were sovereign, they're running a commercial operation and that's an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act," he said.
The plaintiffs hope to expand this suit to prosecute other companies, including manufacturers of Christmas ornaments and light bulbs allegedly made by slaves in so-called "reeducation camps" in China under contact with U.S. companies, who for obvious reasons don't want their identities known.
"With the court order we can compel the defendants to make statements under oath," Ning Ye said. "Finally we can cross-examine them."