Report alleges targeting of Swiss-based Catalan separatist’s phone

Anna Gabriel, a Catalan lawmaker, poses in front of the Reformation Wall in Geneva in February 2018 © Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi
This content was published on July 14, 2020 - 14:25
The Guardian/Keystone-SDA/sb

The telephone of Anna Gabriel, a leading figure of the separatist movement in Catalonia who has sought refuge in Geneva, has been reportedly targeted by a “possible case of domestic political espionage”, according to a news investigation.

The Guardian and El Pais newspapers reported on July 13 that Gabriel was one of 100 people who had been allegedly targeted last year using spyware that exploits a vulnerability in WhatsApp software. This reportedly gives access to phone data and turns a mobile phone into a listening device.

The joint news investigation also revealed that the speaker of the Catalan regional parliament, Roger Torrent, was targeted by the spyware. He blamed the Spanish state for the alleged attack. The activist Jordi Domingo was also targeted.

Gabriel is a former regional parliamentarian for the far-left, anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), who is reportedly living in Geneva after fleeing Spain two years ago because of her alleged involvement in organising the illegal Catalan referendum. In early 2018, the Spanish courts issued an arrest warrant for “rebellion, sedition and embezzlement”.

“We had our suspicions,” said Anna Gabriel’s lawyer, Olivier Peter. “Given that the Spanish intelligence services do not deny them, we believe this confirms” the authenticity of these alleged wiretaps, he said.

The lawyer added that Gabriel is not ruling out launching criminal proceedings in Switzerland over the alleged targeting.

“If the Spanish state tapped a telephone in Switzerland without authorisation, I find that problematic and it would be illegal,” said Peter.

‘Pegasus’ software

WhatsApp believes the attacks occurred over a two-week period in April and May 2019, when a total of 1,400 of its users were allegedly targeted by “Pegasus” spyware sold by the Israeli company NSO Group.

The popular messaging app claims that more than 100 members of civil society have been affected, including journalists in India, human rights activists in Morocco, diplomats, and senior government officials.

WhatsApp has launched a lawsuit against NSO Group in the US. NSO Group insists its spyware is only sold to government clients for the purpose of tracking down terrorists and other criminals.

In a statement, the Spanish prime minister’s office told The Guardian: “The government has no evidence that the speaker of the Catalan parliament, Roger Torrent, the former MP Anna Gabriel and the activist Jordi Domingo have been the targets of hacking via their mobiles. Furthermore, we must state that any operation involving a mobile phone is always conducted in accordance with the relevant judicial authorisation.”

Last August, the SonntagsBlick newspaper reported that Spanish diplomats were following closely the activities of Catalan separatists and sympathisers in Switzerland. The Spanish secret service was allegedly involved. The Spanish embassy in Bern said at the time that their activities in Switzerland complied fully with the terms of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

In October, the Le Temps daily reported that Switzerland had become a launchpad for a digital platform fuelling protests in Spain. The platform Democratic Tsunami has become “the backbone of popular protest” in Barcelona and other Catalan cities, said Le Temps. “Although the main players deny it, there are many signs pointing in the same direction: the origin of the democratic tsunami is in Geneva,” it added.

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