The #CatalanGate: spyware on Presidents, MPs and other pro-independence leaders

Their mobile phones were attacked by Israeli NSO Group’s software since 2017

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Pere Aragonès and Carles Puigdemont
VilaWeb / Catalan News Agency
18.04.2022 - 19:01
Actualització: 13.06.2022 - 10:12

The Catalan president, Pere Aragonès, is one of the more than 60 Catalan pro-independence activists victims of spyware. While serving as the vice president of Catalonia during Quim Torra’s mandate, the now leader was infected with Israeli NSO Group’s software, Pegasus, as has been reported by The Citizen Lab on Monday and reproduced by The New Yorker magazine. Citizen Lab is an investigative organization based at the University of Toronto focusing on high-tech human-rights abuses.

Aragonès is just another name in the list. All Catalan presidents since 2010 have been somehow affected by the software. Quim Torra’s phone was infected while he was serving, while former president Artur Mas was attacked after leaving office. Now based in Belgium, exiled president Carles Puigdemont has not been personally affected but the phones of up to 11 close associates, including his spouse, have been infected with the spyware. She has been infected “at least twice,” the Citizen Lab reports suggest, one on or around 7 October 2019 and the second one on 4 July 2020.

Members of the European Parliament

The list includes Antoni Comín, former Health minister and current MEP for the Catalan government’s junior coalition partner, Junts, since the European 2019 elections, Diana Riba representing Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), Catalonia’s senior coalition member, as well as ERC’s Jordi Solé, who replaced former vice president and pardoned Oriol Junqueras in his seat. All of their phones have been infected, while Junts’ MEPs Clara Ponsatí and Carles Puigdemont have been likely relational targets. Ponsatí, who is also the former Catalan Education minister, is likely a target as a phone of her Parliamentary staff, Pol Cruz, was infected with NSO Group’s software.

Catalan Civil Society

Catalan civil society representatives have also been a target of spyware Pegasus. In 2015, the first Pegasus SMS infection attempt was registered. The victim was at the time the president of Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC or Catalan National Assembly) Jordi Sànchez. He received the SMS, “shortly after a large demonstration in Barcelona,” the investigation group pointed out. Between 2017 and 2020, after the 1 October 2017 referendum, Sánchez received at least 25 more infection attempts.

Jordi Sánchez is one of the Catalan pro-independence leaders arrested and later pardoned due to the organization of the referendum. “One of the infections occurred on 13 October  2017, just days before his arrest,” The Citizen Lab reports and SMS that he received up to 2020 “coincided with days when he was given weekend release from jail.”  He is one of the five members of the ANC infected with spyware. The current president of ANC, Elisenda Paluzie, and board member Sònia Urpí are two of the other victims.

Another Catalan civil society organization affected by Pegasus is Òmnium Cultural. One of the most notorious ones is Txell Bonet, spouse of former president Jordi Cuixart, who was also in prison and later pardoned. While Cuixart was absent from his role, journalist and historian Marcel Mauri became the vice president of the cultural group. “Within ten days of assuming the role, on 24 October 2019, we found evidence of what would be the first of three Pegasus infections of his phone,” the report reads. Other board members infected are Jordi Bosch and Elena Jiménez, international representative of Òmnium Cultural.

Lawyers 

Pegasus did not stop at Catalan civil society members, but it was also used to infect the phones of lawyers representing Catalan leaders such as Carles Puigdemont and former vice president Oriol Junqueras. Gonzalo Boye, representing Puigdemont as well as many Catalan pro-independence figures, received a minimum of 18 infection attempts in only five months, from January to May 2020. He was successfully infected on 30 October 2020 or around that date, the Citizen Lab says.

Another prominent lawyer infected is Andreu Van den Eynde. He represents pardoned leaders such as Oriol Junqueras and Raül Romeva, but also former Catalan parliament speaker and current business minister, Roger Torrent, and Barcelona’s ERC city council leader Ernest Maragall. The last lawyer infected, but Citizen Lab cannot determine the date of the infection, is Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas, a lawyer who has also represented Carles Puigdemont.

MPs, speakers, and political forces targeted

Roger Torrent is not the only Parliament speaker infected with Pegasus. The current speaker, Laura Borràs from Junts party, has also been infected, as data from The Citizen Lab report. She was targeted while she was a member of the Spanish congress.

Also, a wide range of members of parliament or Catalan politicians have been infected with Pegasus, from up to five different organizations. Esquerra Republicana (ERC) with 12 members targeted, and Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) with 11 members targeted are the main political forces, but there are others. The far-left party CUP had four members targeted, while the centrist Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català (PDeCAT) had three members. The Partit Nacionalista Català (PNC) had one member targeted, however, they have not been identified.

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