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Spain court hears Rabat case over reporter’s spyware claim

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Pegasus spyware infiltrates mobile phones to extract data or to activate a camera or microphone to spy on the owner./AFP
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Jan 16, 2023 - 02:43 AM

MADRID, SPAIN — Morocco on Friday called on a Madrid court to exonerate the kingdom of repeated claims by a Spanish journalist that it was responsible for bugging his phone with Pegasus spyware.

The demand was made as a court heard Rabat’s case against 68-year-old Ignacio Cembrero who writes for El Confidencial news website and has publicly accused the Moroccan authorities of bugging his phone.

“It is not possible to confirm that the Kingdom of Morocco has any responsibility whatsoever” in this spyware affair, Sergio Berenguer, one of Rabat’s lawyers told the court.

Asked if he wanted to retract his claim, Cembrero — an expert on Spain-Morocco ties — was defiant.

“I stand by everything that I’ve said,” he told the court, which will issue its decision in the coming weeks.

The dispute has its roots in the publication of an explosive investigation by 17 Western media outlets found that more than 50,000 people — including activists, journalists, executives and politicians — had been spied on using software developed by Israeli firm NSO.

Pegasus software can be used to access a phone’s messages and emails, look through photos, eavesdrop on calls, track the owner’s location and even film them with the camera.

Among those targeted were at least 180 journalists in 20 countries who had been flagged for surveillance by NSO clients, including Cembrero who has covered Moroccan affairs for more than two decades.

Morocco was singled out as one of the countries that had bought the programme and whose intelligence services had used the spyware against journalists — a claim denied by Rabat.

‘Attention seeking’ 

Shortly before the media investigation was published, Cembrero became convinced his phone was being monitored after private Whatsapp messages he had exchanged with Spanish officials were published by a news outlet close to the Moroccan authorities.

Since then, he has repeatedly claimed in various articles, interviews and even before the European Parliament, that Morocco was behind the bugging, while admitting he had no formal proof.

Rabat quickly moved to file suit, demanding he withdraw his allegations and pay Morocco’s legal costs.

“I’ve reached the conclusion.. that only a foreign power, in this case Morocco, could have hacked my phone,” Cembrero told the court on Friday, saying he had been subjected to “harassment” by Rabat.

Cembrero says it is the fourth time Morocco has taken him to court, accusing the kingdom of seeking to crack down on journalistic freedom of expression.

In their closing arguments, however, Morocco’s legal team said the lawsuit had nothing whatsoever to do to with press freedom, with Berenguer accusing Cembrero of “attention seeking”.

Unfounded ‘intimidation’ lawsuit 

Javier Sanchez Sanchez, the lawyer representing Cembrero, argued that the substance of the case was about “efforts by a foreign power to silence a Spanish journalist.

“We’re talking about a SLAPP,” he said, using the acronym for a strategic lawsuit against public participation, effectively an unfounded lawsuit seeking “to intimidate and overwhelm a journalist”.

In April, the European Commission presented a plan to tackle the growth in such “abusive lawsuits”, which are often launched by wealthy individuals and corporations as a way of silencing public criticism.

Morocco has previously taken similar steps in France over claims it used Pegasus software to spy on politicians, among them President Emmanuel Macron, and journalists.

The French courts ruled the lawsuits inadmissible.

In this case, Morocco’s legal team has used an archaic legal provision that dates back to the Middle Ages, accusing Cembrero of “an act of bragging” — in this case, boasting of something without proof.

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