(AP) LONDON - As violence began racing through Syria last year, two European contractors were putting the finishing touches on an encrypted radio system that Syrian officials intended for their security forces, according to leaked company emails and three senior employees involved in the project.
The documents made available to The Associated Press and other media organizations by the WikiLeaks organization show that Greece's Intracom S.A. and Italy's Selex Elsag spent years building a Syria-wide communications network and equipped the government with thousands of walkie-talkies, motorcycle-mounted radio units and avionic transceivers used in helicopters.
The leaked documents give an unusually detailed look at the communications help Western companies have been providing Syria's regime something activists find disturbing.
"This kind of technological assistance is highly undesirable because it is used to repress people," said European parliamentarian Marietje Schaake, who has pushed for tighter export controls on authoritarian governments. "The fact that these are EU-based companies doing all this hurts our credibility."
Most sanctions-watchers interviewed by the AP say that Selex and Intracom likely acted lawfully, and the companies themselves denied wrongdoing.
Intracom said in a statement that it had supplied the Syrians with a civilian telecommunications system "in full respect of relevant export regulations," adding that it was no longer involved in operating the system and therefore had no control over how it was used. It said that its work in Syria had since been suspended due to the situation there.
Selex owner Finmeccanica S.p.A. echoed Intracom's statement, saying its communications system was intended "exclusively for civil, and not military use." The Rome-based defense contractor also claimed that the project was completed "prior to the outbreak of the country's internal conflicts."
Both statements seemed hard to square with evidence that elements of the communication system were designed with the military in mind, or emails showing that Selex and Intracom had been providing technical support to Syrian officials as recently as February a time when government forces were using artillery to pound rebel-held areas of the Syrian city of Homs.
Intracom spokesman Alexandros Tarnaris refused to answer a series of detailed questions about the apparent discrepancies between his company's statement and the evidence seen by the AP; Selex spokesman Carlo Maria Fenu also declined to answer questions.
The companies' role in Syria is difficult to disentangle. In 2008 they jointly announced a 40 million euro deal to build a mobile radio system for the Syrian Wireless Organization, an arm of Syria's Ministry of Communication and Technology. Selex supplied the radio terminals; Intracom built much of the network's infrastructure.
The type of system they were building is called a terrestrial trunked radio, or TETRA, a technology employed the world over to provide resilient, long-range communication for emergency workers, transport services and private industry. In Britain, it's used everywhere from the country's coast guard agency to London's Heathrow Airport and the capital's sprawling subway.
But the technology considered more secure than conventional cell phone networks has law enforcement and military applications as well. Police agencies across Europe use the standard to communicate, while Israel uses a Motorola-built TETRA network for its army.
"Like any technologies it can be used for good or evil," said Marcus Carey, a researcher with Boston-based security company Rapid7. "While an emergency organization can save lives with TETRA networks, an oppressive regime can coordinate violent actions against dissidents."