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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Far-right Vox leads mass protests against Spain’s government

Tens of thousands of supporters from Spain's far-right Vox party demonstrated nationwide on Sunday to protest Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's leftist government.

Far-right Vox leads mass protests against Spain's government

Police said 25,000 people gathered in central Madrid’s Colon Square, where protesters unfurled flags and called on Sánchez to go, while demonstrations also took place in cities across Spain.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal denounced a “government of treason, insecurity and ruin” after recent changes to the criminal code and the approval of a new law against sexual violence.

He lambasted the planned abolition of the crime of sedition, of which nine separatist leaders were convicted over their role in the Catalonia region’s abortive secession bid in 2017. An offence carrying a lower prison sentence will replace it.

“We have a government that governs against the people, lowers prison sentences for crimes, disarms the police,” Abascal told his followers in the Spanish capital.

The right believes the modified criminal code, which should be in place by the end of the year, will encourage further attempts to separate the northeastern Catalonia region from Spain.

“We are being governed by separatists, people who don’t want to be Spanish, that’s why I’m here,” said protester Cesar Peinado, a 65-year-old retired truck driver, accusing the government of “buying votes”.

Abascal said sexual assaults had doubled since Socialist premier Sánchez took power in 2018 and denounced a law he claimed allowed rapists and paedophiles to leave prison earlier.

He was referring to a flagship government law against sexual violence that toughened penalties for rape but eased sentences for other sexual crimes, setting some convicts free after their jail terms were reduced.

Supporters of far-right party Vox Santiago Abascal (unseen) hold a placard reading “liar, elections now” as they gather during an anti-government protest in Madrid, on November 27th 2022. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

María Dolores López, 58, told AFP she could “no longer put up with what this government is doing”, citing its policy towards the Catalan separatists and its law against sexual violence.

“It isn’t a coincidence that there’s no security either,” Abascal added, denouncing “a crazy minister who makes a law with the approval of the entire government, the political and media left so that rapists and paedophiles end up on the streets”.

The ruling left-wing coalition has long drawn the ire of the right and far right for initiating a dialogue with Catalonia’s pro-independence leaders, with large protests taking place in 2019 and 2021 over the talks.

Lacking a parliamentary majority, Sánchez’s government has been forced since its formation to negotiate with Basque and Catalan separatists to pass bills.

The coalition says sedition is an antiquated offence that should be replaced with one better aligned to European norms.

The nine Catalan separatists initially sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison under the sedition law were pardoned last year, also infuriating the right.

The failed independence bid sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, with then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several others fleeing abroad to escape prosecution.