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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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POLITICS

Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

Well-known faces of Cuba's protest have in recent years gone into exile in Madrid, which is rivalling Miami as a haven for Latin American political opponents.

Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

“Miami has always been the destination of those who suffered from Latin American dictatorships,” Cuban dissident and playwright Yunior García, who went into self-imposed exile in Madrid in November, told AFP.

But now “many Latin Americans are choosing to come to Spain,” added García, one of the organisers of a failed mass protest last year in the Communist-ruled island.

The Spanish capital is especially attractive for an artist and dissident fleeing a dictatorship because of its “bohemian” atmosphere, García said.

Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs as cleaners or waiters — but in recent years prominent exiles have joined the influx.

Award-winning Nicaraguan writer and former vice president Sergio Ramírez and Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo López, a former mayor of Chacao, an upmarket district of Caracas, are among those who have moved to Madrid.

“Madrid is the new Miami, the new place where so many hispanics come fleeing dictatorship,” said Toni Cantó, the head of a Madrid regional government body charged with promoting the region as the “European capital of Spanish”.

Many Latin Americans are able to establish themselves easily in Spain because they have double citizenship, in many cases because their ancestors came from the country.

Others like García arrive on a tourist visa and then request asylum.

Sometimes, especially in the case of prominent Venezuelan opposition leaders, the government has rolled out the welcome mat and granted them Spanish citizenship.

Cuban political dissident Carolina Barrero is pictured during an AFP interview in Madrid. Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs, but in recent years prominent exilees have joined the influx. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Good option’

Contacted by AFP, Spain’s central government declined to comment.

But shortly after García arrived in Spain, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told parliament that Latin Americans “share our values, they look naturally to Europe”.

For Cubans, getting a visa to enter the United States has been even more complicated in recent years since Washington closed its consulate in Havana in 2017. It only partially reopened in May.

“Spain is a very good option,” said Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez, who fled to Spain in January when he finally was able to obtain a passport after years of being denied one.

Spain has received previous waves of Cuban dissidents in the past.

Under an agreement between Cuba, Spain and the Catholic Church, in 2010 and 2011, more than 110 Cuban political prisoners arrived in Madrid, accompanied by dozens of relatives.

There are now about 62,000 Cubans officially registered in Spain, with Madrid home to the largest community.

Cuba is “a pressure cooker, and ever time pressure builds” Havana eases it by forcing dissidents into exile, said Alejandro Gonzalez Raga, the head of the Madrid-based Cuban Observatory for Human Rights who fled to Spain in 2008.

Cuban journalist Mónica Baró is pictured at her home in Madrid. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Lost everything’

Cuban independent journalist Mónica Baró said she left Cuba for Madrid in 2021 because she said she could no longer bear the “harassment” of Cuban state security forces.

Madrid shares the same language and has a “shared culture”, as well as a well-established network of Cubans, that has helped her overcome the “traumas” she brought with her, Baro added.

But not knowing if she will ever see her parents, who remained in Cuba, again saddens her.

“When you leave like I did, you have the feeling that you buried your parents,” said Baró, who faces arrest if she returns to Cuba.

García said he welcomed the absence in Madrid of the deep “resentment” and “rage” towards the Cuban regime found in Miami among its much larger community of Cuban exiles, which he said was “natural”.

These are people “who had to leave on a raft, who lost everything they had in Cuba, whose family suffered jail time and sometimes death,” he said.

Madrid on the other hand, provides “tranquility to think things through,” he added.

“I don’t want anger, resentment, to win me over,” García said.

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