Spanish judge seeks to quiz Israeli CEO over spyware scandal

A Spanish judge wants to visit Israel to quiz the CEO of an Israeli firm behind the Pegasus spyware over a hacking scandal involving the Spanish premier's phone, a court said Tuesday.

Spanish judge seeks to quiz Israeli CEO over spyware scandal
The Pegasus phone-hacking software belongs to NSO Group, which is based in the Israeli coastal city of Herzliya and headed by CEO Shalev Hulio, a co-founder of the spy-tech firm. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

The plans were revealed by Spain’s top criminal court as it lifted a gag order on its investigation into the tapping of mobile phones belonging to Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Defence Minister Margarita Robles using Pegasus spyware made by Israel’s NSO Group.

The probe began after the government filed a complaint on May 2nd, with the investigating judge set to quiz a key minister in early July.

Spain has already sent a formal request for international judicial assistance, known as a letter rogatory, to the Israeli government asking for information on “different aspects of the software tool”, the court said.

But the judge, Jose Luis Calama, now wants to go there in person to take a witness statement from NSO Group’s chief executive.

Israeli authorities must approve such a request, which could take months.

“The judge has agreed to expand on the letter rogatory so that a legal team headed by himself can travel there to take a witness statement from the CEO of the company that sells the Pegasus programme,” the court said.

The Pegasus phone-hacking software belongs to NSO Group, which is based in the Israeli coastal city of Herzliya and headed by CEO Shalev Hulio, a co-founder of the spy-tech firm.

A spokeswoman for NSO said the group operated within the bounds of the law.

‘An external attack’

“NSO operates under a strict legal framework and is confident that this will be the result any government inquiry will reach,” she told AFP.

There was no immediate response from the Israeli authorities.

On Friday, the judge heard testimony from the former head of Spain’s CNI intelligence agency, Paz Esteban, who was sacked on May 10 over the hacking scandal, the court said.

And on July 5th, Calama will hear witness testimony from Felix Bolaños, a cabinet minister who is known for being close to Sanchez.

When the scandal broke, Bolaños said the Spanish government was “absolutely certain it was an external attack” but did not know who was behind it, nor the nature of the information stolen from the ministers’ phones.

Local media have pointed the finger at Morocco, which at the time was locked in a bitter diplomatic spat with Spain.

The government later said Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska’s phone had also been targeted.

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

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

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Catalan separatists to march on national day despite divisions

Catalan separatists hold their annual march in Barcelona on Sunday, but won't be joined this year by their leader, whose support for dialogue with Madrid has divided the movement.

Catalan separatists to march on national day despite divisions

The annual “Diada” on September 11 marks the fall of Barcelona to Spain in 1714 and has traditionally drawn vast crowds.

Under the slogan, “We’re back to win: independence!” organisers hope to mark the comeback for a movement still reeling from the failed 2017 independence bid and then the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our reliance on political parties is over, only the people and civil society can achieve independence,” said the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), an influential association which, over the past decade, transformed this once-minor anniversary into a massive annual event.

READ MORE: Why does Catalonia have its own ‘embassies’ abroad? 

But the ANC, the region’s biggest grassroots separatist movement, has been very critical of dialogue started between the Catalan government of Pere Aragones, a moderate separatist, and Madrid.

It said the “October 1 victory,” when separatists organised a 2017 independence referendum despite a ban by Madrid, and the pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament “must not be wasted in dialogue with the Spanish state and on internal squabbles”.

This year, Aragones has decided not to attend the march.

Last year, his presence drew derisive whistles from some of the 108,000 people who turned out to demonstrate at what was one of the smallest turnouts in a decade, police figures showed.

“It wouldn’t make much sense if my presence there was used against the government I run,” he told regional public television on Wednesday, referring to his separatist coalition which groups the left-wing ERC and hardline JxC.

Aragones belongs to ERC, which favours a negotiated strategy to achieve independence via dialogue with Madrid, while JxC wants to maintain a confrontational approach.

Other ERC government members won’t attend Sunday’s march, while JxC representatives will.

A movement in crisis

Gone are the years when vast crowds would paralyse the streets of Barcelona, when the Diada drew more than a million participants in the run-up to the 2017 independence bid. 

Five years on from that frenetic autumn, when the Catalan government made a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, the context is very different.

Those behind the bid were arrested, tried and sentenced to long jail terms by Spain’s top court, although they were later pardoned.

READ MORE: Spanish intelligence did spy on Catalan separatists with court approval: report

Others fled abroad to avoid prosecution, leaving the separatists sharply at odds over how to move forward.

ERC — a small player in Spain’s national parliament, but which has offered crucial support to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s minority government — says it is fully committed to dialogue.

That hasn’t changed despite recent revelations that the Spanish intelligence service had spied on separatist politicians. But the hardliners are running out of patience, disappointed with politicians whom they see as reneging on their promises.

“We at the ANC don’t understand how the Catalan leader is happy to pose for photos with the leadership in Madrid but doesn’t want to do the same with hundreds of thousands of Catalans who want independence,” the group said.

Sunday’s march will be a delicate moment for a very weakened movement.

“The context has changed radically following the pandemic and now with the war in Ukraine,” said Ana Sofia Cardenal, a political scientist at Catalonia’s Open University, suggesting people have more immediate preoccupations.

“The mood among the people is different now, even among those who back Catalan independence,” she said. They want “the politicians to resolve the problems” that people are facing in daily life.