Pegasus Project: human rights lawyers among those targeted in the large-scale espionage attack

Pegasus Project: human rights lawyers among those targeted in the large-scale espionage attack

A massive data breach reveals that the Pegasus spyware, designed by the Israeli company NSO Group, has been used by governments to surveil lawyers, journalists, human rights activists and politicians around the world.

The leak of a database, created since 2016, with more than 50,000 phone numbers, suggests that these professionals and activists were selected to be tapped through the Pegasus spyware. NSO Group’s creation, once installed on the victim’s phone, allows the attacker to access all the phone’s activity, as well as record it.

For its part, the company insists that Pegasus is only intended for the prosecution of terrorists and criminals. However, it is alarming that the tool has been sold to some of the countries with the highest number of international complaints of human rights violations and that the profiles of those selected as surveillance targets are mostly lawyers, journalists, human rights activists and government opponents. These actions are particularly serious as they are attacks against operators who work for the defence of human rights in their respective professions.

The OIAD particularly regrets the number of lawyers targeted in the leaked data, including London-based lawyer Rodney Dixon, who represents high-profile human rights cases[1].

In addition, enquiries also show that French lawyer Joseph Breham’s phone was infected with the Pegasus software that was used by Morocco. The lawyer has worked on human rights cases in Morocco and Western Sahara, which Breham directly links to the attack[2].

Finally, according to information published by different media, in the case of Mexico, 15,000 people may have been spied on during the government of former president Enrique Peña Nieto, through the late Attorney General’s Office (PGR), the Army and the Centre for Investigation and National Security. In this regard, the spying on some of the parents of the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa and the defence lawyer in the case, Vidulfo Rosales, stands out[3].

Against this background, the OIAD strongly condemns these actions, which constitute an illegal interference in the private lives of the persons selected and monitored, as well as a serious violation of the right to professional secrecy of the legal profession, which endangers the free exercise of lawyers

The OIAD reminds the authorities involved in such actions that the independence of lawyers is one of the main indicators of democratic health and the consolidation of the rule of law. This is in accordance with the provisions of the Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers (1990):

« Governments shall ensure that lawyers (a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; » (Principal 16)

« Governments shall recognize and respect that all communications and consultations between lawyers and their clients within their professional relationship are confidential. » (Principal 22)

« Lawyers like other citizens are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly. In particular, they shall have the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights and to join or form local, national or international organizations and attend their meetings, without suffering professional restrictions by reason of their lawful action or their membership in a lawful organization. In exercising these rights, lawyers shall always conduct themselves in accordance with the law and the recognized standards and ethics of the legal profession. » (Principal 23)

The OIAD expresses its solidarity with the lawyers concerned.

The OIAD recalls that lawyers are actors of justice who contribute daily to the development of law and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The OIAD calls for a thorough, independent and immediate investigation.

The OIAD will follow with particular attention the development of the proceedings initiated by the lawyers directly affected by the PEGASUS spyware”.

[1] « His clients have included Matthew Hedges, a British doctoral student jailed in the UAE, and Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. She was also targeted with Pegasus, with forensics showing evidence of a successful infection ».

Pegasus project: spyware leak suggests lawyers and activists at risk across globe | Human rights | The Guardian

[2] « At that time, we were also working on documented, substantiated and quite serious allegations about the Sahrawi political prisoners ».