How spyware allegations are poisoning Spain’s ties with Catalan separatists

Catalan separatists have accused Spain’s intelligence services of using spyware to snoop on their mobile phones, reviving tensions with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s minority leftist government which relies on their support to pass legislation.

How spyware allegations are poisoning Spain's ties with Catalan separatists
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (L) and Catalan regional President Pere Aragonès hold a meeting at the Generalitat palace in Barcelona on September 15, 2021. Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP

Canada’s Citizen Lab group said Monday that at least 65 people linked to the Catalan separatist movement had been targets of Pegasus spyware in the wake of a failed independence bid in 2017.

Elected officials, including current and former Catalan regional leaders, were among those targeted by the controversial spyware made by Israel’s NSO group.

Citizen Lab, which focuses on high-tech human rights abuses, said it could not directly attribute the spying operations, but that circumstantial evidence pointed to Spanish authorities.

But Catalan leader Pere Aragonès said Wednesday that “you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes” to point the finger at Spain’s intelligence service, known as CNI.

“We have suspected for a long time that we were the target of the state intelligence service,” he added during an interview with Catalan radio RAC1.

Catalonia, in northeast Spain, has been for several years at the centre of a political crisis between separatists, who control the executive and the regional parliament, and the central government in Madrid.

Pegasus silently infiltrates mobile phones to extract data or activate a camera or microphone to spy on their owners.

NSO Group, the owner of Pegasus, claims the software is only sold to government agencies to target criminals and terrorists, with the green light of Israeli authorities.

The company has been criticised by global rights groups for violating users’ privacy around the world and it faces lawsuits from major tech firms such as Apple and Microsoft.

The Spanish government has denied illegally spying on the Catalan independence leaders, but was silent on whether the secret services had undertaken any court-approved electronic surveillance.

Defence Minister Margarita Robles, who oversees the country’s intelligence apparatus, said all actions carried out by the CNI “are subjected to judicial control and authorisation”.

But she would not say if the CNI has access to Pegasus, saying this information is protected by law and classified.

“I can’t confirm if it has it or not, because I would be violating the law,” she said during an interview with Spanish public television.

(FromL) Catalan separatists Raul Romeva, Jordi Turull, Jordi Cuixart Oriol Junqueras, Joaquim Forn, Jordi Sánchez and Josep Rull leave Lledoners jail on June 23, 2021 in Sant Joan de Vilatorrada. – Spain pardoned the jailed Catalan separatists behind a failed 2017 independence bid in a bid to break the deadlock over the political crisis in this wealthy northeastern region. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

‘Need guarantees’

Spanish daily newspaper El País reported that CNI paid €6 million ($6.5 million) for Pegasus to use it outside of Spain, and Catalan separatists suspect they were spied on in various European countries.

Catalan separatist politicians and activists announced a legal offensive in several countries Tuesday against Spain and NSO Group.

Aragonès called the explanations given so far by the central government “insufficient” and warned that “parliamentary stability” could end unless it takes responsibility.

His own phone was among those allegedly targeted with Pegasus during his previous role as Catalonia’s vice president.

Sánchez’s leftist minority government relies on Catalan separatist party ERC, which is headed by Aragonès, to pass legislation in parliament.

Aragonès told news radio Ser on Thursday that he had exchanged messages with Sánchez to set up a meeting to discuss the alleged spying.

“It is serious, we need guarantees that it is not happening now and that it won’t happen in the future,” he added.

But Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, said this affair was unlikely to inflame the Catalan separatist base.

“The pro-independence base has been showing rapidly growing fatigue for some time now, since 2019. As a result, episodes like this produce less and less reaction,” he told AFP.

Polls show support for independence has waned since Catalonia’s failed 2017 secession bid.

A survey published in March by the Catalan government’s Centre for Opinion Studies found that 53.3 per cent of those questioned were against independence, versus 38.8 per cent in favour.

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Spain and Mali foreign ministers speak after row over NATO remarks

Mali's Foreign Minister said Saturday he had spoken with his Spanish counterpart after a row over comments the Spaniard made about the possibility of a NATO operation in the African country.

Spain and Mali foreign ministers speak after row over NATO remarks

Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop wrote in a tweet that he had spoken by phone with his Spanish counterpart Jose Manuel Albares about the comments, which were made in a radio interview.

“He denied the remarks and expressed his attachment to friendly relations and cooperation with Mali,” wrote Diop.

Spain moved to calm the row Saturday, a day after a day the military regime in Bamako had summoned their ambassador for an explanation.

“Spain did not ask during the NATO summit or at any other time for an intervention, mission or any action by the Alliance in Mali,” said a statement from Spain’s embassy.

The row blew up over remarks by Albares in an interview Thursday with Spain’s RNE radio. Asked if a NATO mission in Mali could be ruled out, Albares said: “No, we can’t rule it out.”

“It hasn’t been on the table at the talks in Madrid because this is a summit that is laying out, so to speak, the framework for NATO action.”

“If it were necessary and if there was to be a threat to our security, of course it would be done,” he added.

Albares was speaking on the sidelines of the NATO summit as it drew to a close in Madrid. Diop had told state broadcaster ORTM on Friday that Bamako had summoned the Spanish ambassador to lodge a strong protest over the remarks.

READ ALSO: Nato apologises after hanging Spanish flag upside down at Madrid summit

“These remarks are unacceptable, unfriendly, serious,” said Diop, because “they tend to encourage an aggression against an independent and sovereign country”.

“We have asked for explanations, a clarification of this position from the Spanish government,” he added.

At the Madrid summit, Spain pushed hard to prioritise the topic of the threat to NATO’s southern flank caused by the unrest in the Sahel — the vast territory stretching across the south of Africa’s Sahara Desert, incorporating countries such as Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

Jihadist attacks there are pushing increasing numbers of people to flee north towards Europe, with Spain one of the main points of entry there.

READ ALSO: Spain’s capital ramps up security to host Nato summit

At the summit, NATO acknowledged the alliance’s strategic interest in the Middle East, north Africa and the Sahel.

Mali has since 2012 been rocked by jihadist insurgencies. Violence began in the north and then spread to the centre and to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.