Anti-terrorism court case against MTN gets personal

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 30 Mar 2022

Phuthuma Nhleko, former CEO and executive chairman of MTN Group, has been added to the case of alleged violations of the Anti-Terrorism Act filed against the Pan-African telco in in the US.

Nhleko and another former MTN executive, Irene Charnley, are being accused of aiding terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan with substantial assistance, which led to the death of US army personnel.

MTN is Africa’s biggest telco, with more than 270 million subscribers.

It is alleged the operator and the former executives violated US anti-terrorism laws through alleged payments of protection money to militant Islamist groups.

The anti-terrorism complaint has been playing out in a New York court for several years.

MTN has denied allegations of supporting terrorism, and has had one terror case dismissed because the plaintiffs couldn’t establish jurisdiction over MTN in the US.

Today, Washington-based law firm Sparacino PLLC, representing families of the victims, says: “Hundreds of Americans, including veterans and Gold Star family members, filed two separate Anti-Terrorism Act complaints against: MTN Irancell, alleged to be an Iranian joint venture between notorious fronts for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and MTN Group; former MTN CEO Phuthuma Nhleko; and MTN executive Irene Charnley, for allegedly supporting a campaign of terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan led by the IRGC, including its Hezbollah Division and Qods Force, and al-Qaeda, including its affiliates in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The law firm adds: “Both complaints allege US Anti-Terrorism Act claims against MTN, MTN Irancell, Mr Nhleko, and Ms Charnley for allegedly deliberately aiding the ‘Security’ agenda of the IRGC, including its Hezbollah Division and Qods Force, through support to the IRGC and its proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan, including al-Qaeda and the Taliban.”

In response to the latest development, MTN confirmed receiving the court papers. It says the complaints do not appear to introduce any new substantive allegations against MTN, instead merely restating allegations made in Zobay v MTN, a case currently pending before the Eastern District of New York.

Phuthuma Nhleko, former MTN Group CEO.
Phuthuma Nhleko, former MTN Group CEO.

“MTN categorically rejects the complainants’ attempt to portray MTN as a supporter of terrorism based on its minority, non-controlling investment in a telecommunications joint venture in Iran that provides connectivity to tens of millions of subscribers.”

The company says it has deep sympathy for those who have been injured or lost loved ones as a result of the tragic conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and “we understand the profound impact this has on the families that are left behind. But MTN firmly believes that, as to the plaintiffs’ claims, the plaintiffs have sued the wrong defendants in the wrong court based on insufficient allegations.”

The new case against MTN comes as the Pan-African telecoms giant is accelerating its departure from the Middle East, where it has experienced various challenges over the years.

MTN Group has already exited Yemen, and before that, the telco had an abrupt departure from Syria, after its executive team was relieved of its duties and a Syrian court appointed the chairman of minority shareholder, TeleInvest, to manage the company’s day-to-day operations.

In Iran, the mobile operator has repeatedly refuted bribery allegations following accusations by Istanbul-based Turkcell that MTN engaged in illicit activity to gain its GSM licence in Iran in 2005.

Turkcell claims MTN used bribery and corruption to overturn the initial Iranian decision so that the licence was awarded to Irancell, of which the MTN Group owns 49%.

While plans are afoot to depart Tehran, CEO Ralph Mupita recently cautioned during a call with analysts that “Iran is a longer-term story”.