16th June 2024
Spanish Prime Minister meeting with the Catalan President, Pere Aragonès, on 15 September 2021 in Barcelona.
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‘CatalanGate’: politicians, activists accuse Spain of ‘huge & illegal’ spying

Catalan pro-independence politicians and activists have accused Spain of spying on dozens of its leaders’ cell phones with Pegasus spyware, after details came to light in a report by a Canadian organisation.

At least 65 Catalans were targeted including the region’s current president, according to the full report by Citizen Lab research centre at the University of Toronto, cited by The New Yorker and El País.

The report said Pegasus spyware developed by Israel’s NSO Group had been installed on their phones.

The report, entitled ‘CatalanGate’, explains that cases were were first reported by The Guardian in 2020. Following these reports, the Citizen Lab, ‘in collaboration with civil society organisations, undertook a large-scale investigation into Pegasus hacking in Spain. The investigation has uncovered at least 65 individuals targeted or infected with Pegasus or spyware from Candiru, another mercenary hacking company’.

Nearly all the phones were allegedly hacked between 2017 and 2020, although an instance of targeting in 2015 was also found. The kind of espionage Madrid is accused of is illegal in Spain.

Amnesty International, alongside other civil society organisations, has previously documented the widespread and unlawful use of spyware against activists, politicians and journalists around the globe, including as part of the Pegasus project. In a statement issued on Tuesday, Amnesty said that ‘European Union institutions are failing to end the rampant human rights violations committed with spyware’.

‘We have been spied on in a huge and illegal manner through software that only states can possess,’ ex-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont tweeted. ‘Politicians, lawyers and activists are all victims of the Spanish state’s dirty war,’ he added.

Those targeted include present Catalan leader Pere Aragonès, who was deputy leader of the region at the time, ex-regional leaders Quim Torra and Artur Mas, as well as members of the EU and Catalan parliaments and of independent civil society organisations.

Puigdemont, who escaped to Belgium after an attempt by the region to gain independence through a 2017 referendum, was not one of those targeted but several people close to him were, including his wife, Citizen Lab said.

The president of the Catalan regional parliament, Roger Torrent, in July 2020 accused Spain of spying on him with Pegasus software but Madrid denied the claim.

We are facing a case of espionage against a democratic European movement, which puts fundamental rights at risk everywhere,’ Aragonès tweeted in English on Monday. ‘The Spanish government must give immediate explanations and get to the bottom of the matter.’

Catalonia has been at the centre for several years of a political crisis between pro-independence parties, who control the regional parliament, and the central government in Madrid.

Tensions have eased following the start of talks in 2020 between separatists and the socialist-led (PSOE) government under Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, after he pardoned nine pro-independence leaders [see below].

Pegasus, which can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data, was at the centre of a storm last year after a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide was leaked to the media.

The Citizen Lab’s report concludes as follows: ‘This report details extensive surveillance directed against Catalan civil society and government using mercenary spyware. According to NSO Group, Pegasus is sold exclusively to governments, and finding such an operation inevitably implicates a government. While we do not currently attribute this operation to specific governmental entities, circumstantial evidence suggests a strong nexus with the government of Spain, including the nature of the victims and targets, the timing, and the fact that Spain is reported to be a government client of NSO Group.’ You can click here to read Citizen Lab’s full report: CatalanGate: Extensive Mercenary Spyware Operation against Catalans Using Pegasus and Candiru.

Catalan Independence movement

In October 2017 the Catalan government led by Carles Puigdemont staged a referendum banned by Madrid (with Mariano Rajoy Prime Minister at the time) and then issued a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

Nine Catalan politicians and activists were eventually jailed for between 9-13 years by the Spanish Supreme Court in October 2019, convicted of sedition and misuse of funds for their roles in the illegal referendum – with the verdicts causing widespread protests across Catalonia. In June 2021, the nine walked free from prison, following the pardons granted by the current PSOEPodemos coalition government led by Sánchez.

Click here for all our reports related to Catalan independence. 

Spanish Prime Minister meeting with the Catalan President, Pere Aragonès, on 15 September 2021 in Barcelona.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez meeting with the Catalan President, Pere Aragonès, on 15 September 2021 in Barcelona. (Pool Moncloa / Borja Puig de la Bellacasa)

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