The three Chinese dissidents accusing Cisco of aiding and abetting their imprisonment and torture.

The three Chinese dissidents accusing Cisco of aiding and abetting their imprisonment and torture.

Cisco, one of the world's largest technology companies, is being sued by Chinese political prisoners for allegedly providing the technology and expertise used by the Chinese Communist Party to monitor, censor and suppress the Chinese people.

Daniel Ward, of US law firm Ward & Ward, has brought the case on behalf of Du Daobin, Zhou Yuanzhi, Liu Xianbin and 10 unnamed others. He compared Cisco's actions to "IBM's behaviour in Nazi Germany".

Cisco has rejected the allegations as baseless but has failed to respond to serious questions stemming from an internal company presentation.

Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia.

Nobel Peace Prize 2010 winner Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11-year sentence. Here he is pictured with his wife Liu Xia.

"Cisco has, for years now, knowingly aided and abetted the Chinese Communist Party's ongoing efforts to stifle the free speech and discourse of its citizenry," Mr Ward told Fairfax Media.

"Dating back to the early 2000s, Cisco competed for contracts with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to help design, develop and implement the 'Golden Shield Project' - a rather Orwellian euphemism for the Chinese Communist Party's ongoing effort to monitor, track and censor all internet traffic into and out of China."

According to court documents, Mr Du spent three years in jail, Mr Zhou is a prisoner in his own home and Mr Liu has served two months of a 10-year sentence. All three claim to have been tortured and abused over articles they published online.

Laogai Research Foundation executive director Harry Wu announces the court case in June this year.

Laogai Research Foundation executive director Harry Wu announces the court case in June this year.

The case, filed in the US District Court in Maryland, is reminiscent of lawsuits launched against Yahoo by human rights groups after the internet company gave details about users to the Chinese government. These details were used to throw journalists and dissidents in jail, where they were deprived of food and basic comforts, and were beaten.

In many cases, the Chinese citizens have been locked up for little more than internet postings criticising China's one-party system and advocating regime change.

Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, is serving an 11-year sentence in China for his political writings. Ironically, Cisco sponsored the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Concert

A slide from the internal Cisco presentation used as part of the case.

A slide from the internal Cisco presentation used as part of the case.

Cisco has publicly stated that it helped the CCP build its Golden Shield and Policenet systems. In the legal complaint, seen by Fairfax Media, Cisco is accused of training Chinese engineers in how to use its technology to carry out surveillance of online activity and suppress dissident activity.

"With the assistance of Cisco, the CCP is now capable of detecting, identifying and tracking perceived threats to the CCP's power, and blocking 'harmful' websites," the complaint reads.

The case, which was filed in June but received minimal media coverage, is being funded by the Laogai Research Foundation, whose executive director, Harry Wu, spent 19 years in Chinese labour camps but now lives in America. Mr Wu has spent years raising awareness of human rights abuses in China and was the driving force behind the case against Yahoo, which was settled for an undisclosed amount.

"Cisco is a company that would do business with any partner so long as it turns a profit, even at the expense of our people's rights and freedoms," Mr Wu said recently.

In a leaked internal Cisco presentation from 2002, seen by Fairfax Media, the company reveals how its products can address China's goals of "maintaining stability", "stop the network-related crimes" and "combat 'Falun Gong' evil religion and other hostiles".

The document also has a page discussing "Networked prisons and jails", describing how information about a suspect travels through Cisco's system from the time a suspect is first jailed to when they are released. The system links jails and police departments and Mr Wu argues it "directly aided in tracking down dissidents and keeping them under oppressive surveillance".

"They aren't just selling routers to a corrupt regime. They are selling the technology, training and software specifically designed to monitor, censor and suppress the Chinese people," said Mr Ward.

"And they are doing so knowing full well how the CCP treats dissenters."

The Golden Shield Project - also known as the Great Firewall of China - is used by the Chinese government to eliminate references to politically sensitive topics such as Tiananmen Square, Liu Xiaobo and the Jasmine Revolution sweeping through the Middle East. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter are also blocked.

Mr Ward claims one of the dissidents suing Cisco, Du Daobin, has been extensively interrogated by Chinese authorities over his involvement in the case and has been kept under 24-hour surveillance. Mr Ward believes Mr Du was not harmed because of public interest in the case.

Mr Du received a four-year prison term in 2003 for posting pro-democracy articles online, but the sentence was suspended for four years. In 2008, his sentence was reinstated and he was imprisoned for two years.

Mr Ward claims Mr Du was subjected to "extreme physical and psychological torture" and, by the time of his release in 2010, was suffering from "extreme malnutrition and cardiac issues". Mr Ward said Mr Du, whose wife has moved out and left him to raise their child, could no longer walk without assistance and depends on a wheelchair for movement.

Cisco, which has sought to delay the court case, said it did not operate networks in China or elsewhere - it just provided the equipment - and denied it customised its products in any way that would facilitate censorship or repression.

"There is no basis for these allegations against Cisco, and we intend to vigorously defend against them," the company said in a statement, refusing to answer any further questions.

In a blog post, Cisco's legal counsel Mark Chandler said the company supported free expression and open communication on the internet.

Cisco recently reported $US43.2 billion in revenues for last year. The legal complaint claims it has earned an estimated $500 million in profits on sales to China and holds 60 per cent of the Chinese market for routers, switches and other networking gear.

China, which employs an estimated 30,000-50,000 internet police, has claimed recent moves by Western governments to censor internet and other communications vindicates its own repressive policies.