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The Pegasus committeee will vote on its report over the use of espionage spyware in European territory on April 25th. That text will incorporate the information and conclusions that the delegates have arrived at as a result of their missions to European Union countries where the hacking of mobile phones using the Pegasus and Candiru programs has been detected. The committee's mission to Spain last week brought 10 of its MEPs to Madrid to investigate the surveillance revealed by Citizen Lab's Catalangate report, which involved at least 65 leaders and figures linked to the pro-independence movement - 18 of these cases recognized by Spain's National Intelligence Centre (CNI). The MEP from the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), and a vice-president of the committee, Diana Riba (Barcelona, 1975), attends ElNacional, by video conference, from Barcelona after having held six meetings in Madrid with espionage victims, journalists, members of civil society and second-level Spanish authorities. In the conversation Riba maintains that, after the visit, "the Pegasus committee has been left with many doubts about the legality of the espionage in Spain".

What reading do you make of the mission's visit to Spain? What do you think it will contribute to the report?
The positive reading is that a mission was finally carried out to Spain, something that took a year to be approved by the committee because we did not have the majorities to do so. Missions had been made to all the other states where there had been cases of espionage, but it had not been possible to do so to Spain. We are very happy that it was possible and that an agenda was achieved which, despite the pressures to dilute it, has had conclusions that are much more detailed about the Catalangate cases. We have obtained a much clearer vision of the laws that are in force in Spain to prevent spying with programs like Pegasus. We have achieved this as a joint vision. We have got the committee to understand that, even though there are 18 cases that they say are legal [recognized by the CNI], the law in Spain does not give them authorization to spy.

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Riba is the vice president of the committee that has just visited Madrid / Photo: Ana Beltrán

Under what conditions does Spanish law make it possible to spy on someone?
It contemplates two options of judicial authorization only. One is the old-fashioned wiretapping, which is listening to a person's phone for three months, and the other is a 24-hour period to enter a home. The goal of Pegasus is not the old-fashioned listening-in and is more like entering a home for 24 hours. Therefore, more doubts have been raised than before arriving in Madrid about the legality of these 18 cases.

Do you think the perception of the MEPs changed after visiting Madrid?
Before the mission it was clear that 18 cases were legal and after the mission there are many doubts about the legality. In the case of the Spanish state, in matters of espionage, these are very old laws. Yes, there are more doubts than certainties. In relation to the remaining 47 cases [revealed by Citizen Lab], we are concerned because no gesture has been made by any Spanish agency to clarify them. They have been left to one side and this is also very worrying. It is not understood why the director of the CNI resigned. If it was so legal why did she resign? There have been many doubts that have not been clarified because we have not received any response.

Removing any mention of Catalangate from the mission is impossible

What have you perceived of your travelling companions, a group of ten MEPs from different political families?
There are not many differences between the political groups when an MEP speaks about what is happening in Europe with the illegal use of these programs. The big difference is when we come across issues that affect the Spanish state. When the Spanish Socialist (PSOE) or People's Party (PP) members of the committee ask questions or questions that have nothing to do with Pegasus, questions that intend to put the argument that we are in a state of law or that ideas are not persecuted in this state. This argument falls apart on its own when you ask what crimes were committed by the 65 people spied on. "If ideas are not being pursued, what are the crimes?" is the question that was asked repeatedly. In fact, in the meeting with three journalists, one of them acknowledged that Spain has always carried out investigations over political questions, the Basques and the Catalans, for the sake of the unity of Spain. This sentence landed a bombshell for us, the democrats who were present.

In the meetings, the PP acted as a whip against the independence movement, the PSOE questioned the credibility of Citizen Lab and Vox sounded the alarm when it had Catalan independence supporters before it. Will they insist on removing any reference to Catalangate in the final report?
I can't say anything about the drafting of the report because it depends on the majorities in the European Parliament. Removing any mention of Catalangate from the mission is impossible. To begin with we could not see Pedro Sánchez or his ministers and therefore we could not see the victims of espionage among the Spanish government. We were able to ask very little about the hacking of the mobile phones of the Spanish executive because when we asked the secretary of state, Pascual Navarro, there were no answers. Elsewhere in the agenda, the journalists did talk about those cases, but they focused much more on Catalangate. With the Ombudsman we also focused on his report on the 18 investigated. They themselves didn't talk about the case of the ministers. Ninety percent of the agenda was used to talk about Catalangate. So omitting it from the final report will be very difficult.

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Riba affirms that the Spanish government's responses "did not convince." / Photo: Ana Beltrán

How does it go down that a government that has been spied on itself does not want to be accountable to a mission that has come to Madrid to protect it?
This is what we ask ourselves and not only in Spain. Why didn't the French government make any legal moves to denounce its espionage case? Why is the European Commission so silent when commissioner Reynders was also investigated? Why is there this enormous silence from the member states? Why aren't they talking about this? Maybe because all the states have it?

Did you leave disappointed with the response of the Spanish authorities to the mission in Madrid, as acknowledged by the rapporteur and the committee president?
Yes, I agree. We're not talking about the fact that they didn't receive us in the two days, we're talking about the fact that in one year and one month they haven't given any kind of information and that they have many ways to get it to the Pegasus committee. Yes, we are disappointed.

Were you satisfied with the explanations given by the secretary of state, Pascual Navarro?
They didn't convince us. It was one of those meetings that you get used to from some governments like Hungary and Poland. The secretary of state opened up with very good intentions, wanting to be transparent, to put the government at the service of the committee. He said they had very noble goals. For example, that if a judge asked for the declassification of some documents, he assured that that would be done. That they want to reform the Official Secrets Act, that they want to reform the CNI. But to hear this from a secretary of state who has only a few months left in his term. All of us in the room knew what it means to change the Official Secrets Act and we are all aware that it is very difficult to do that in eight months. He made a very nice introduction but the question time did not yield any answers.

The Moncloa government palace imposed the law of silence after the committee's visit to Madrid. Do you see that the Spanish government is willing to take on the damage it may cause to their reputation?
It would be much smarter to take the opportunity to be transparent if they really want to change laws like that of Official Secrets or modernize the CNI. A democracy becomes stronger when errors are also accepted and solutions are put in place. It makes no sense that they accept that there are 18 legal hackings, that the director of the CNI resigns and that no steps are taken to clarify it. I don't know how long they can maintain the silence.

Why do you say that?
I reminded the secretary of state that in three months the Spanish presidency of the European Council [by Pedro Sánchez] begins and in three months we will have the reports from the investigative committee. What role will the European Council play in promoting the recommendations we agree on? There was no response. Beyond that, in every plenary session of the European Parliament and in every committee we will have a council with a Spanish presidency and I don't know if they will be able to last the six months.

I don't know if Pedro Sánchez will be able to last the six months of the European presidency in silence

Sánchez's presidency begins on July 1st and the mission must finish its work before that date. Will you have tools to force him to explain?
If the recommendations report is passed, he will assume the presidency with the text on the table. The first thing they will come across are the recommendations on what member states should do to the legal framework within the European Union to stop using Pegasus illegally. This will have to be faced by the Spanish presidency. This is the great tool.

Did the trip to Madrid hang in the balance last week?
This trip has always hung in the balance because we didn't have the majorities to do it. In the end they are there because it falls under its own weight that we agreed three more months to work and the only member state that we had not gone to was Spain. There were no longer any arguments to put against us. And once it was approved, out came [other arguments]. First we were told that the municipal elections were very close [May 28th]... Then March 20th and 21st seemed like good dates and then it turned out that the 20th was a holiday in Madrid. This involved a setback for the work agenda over whether the trip would have to be cancelled or not. We put a lot of pressure on the committee to go to Barcelona on the 20th and to Madrid on the 21st, but there were no majorities to do this. The final icing on the cake was when Congress programmed the motion of no confidence at 9am. Did it have to be done at 9 or could it have been done at 4 in the afternoon? In the end, on behalf of the European Parliament, everyone was clear that we were making the trip, whatever the agenda.

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Rapporteur Sophie in 't Velt and president Jeroen Lenaers, at the joint appearance / Photo: Ana Beltrán

Junts has asserted that you are responsible for the fact that in the meeting with the victims there were only three people, who are three Catalan political officials, who are all from ERC. Pere Aragonès, Meritxell Serret and Ernest Maragall. How was it decided?
It is a shame that Junts is making these statements because there was a coordination space in which we still have a 52% pro-independence majority with the Catalan National Assembly and Òmnium Cultural. We put a huge list of victims and people to be interviewed by the Greens/EFA group [the parliamentary group that Riba is part of in the European chamber]. There were names in these coordination spaces. It's a question we have to ask them, they won't find me trying to generate more conflict. I think Pegasus is all of us. Yes, I want to criticize that in this mission no one from the ANC or Òmnium was heard and that is because we didn't have a majority.

It is a shame that Junts is making these statements (...) We included victims in all the sections

So what role did you play in it?
I pushed for anyone with a voice on the agenda to speak as a victim. And so Albert Batet and Josep Rius [of Junts] were able to do it, as Junts's Míriam Nogueras had to do it. It makes no sense for [the critics] to make the statements they did. It is true that the agendas of the European Parliament, in any mission, have three priorities: governments, associations and victims. We asked them to change the title of victims because we were meeting with the president of Catalonia and they told us that it was not necessary. There were not three members of the ERC; there was the president, the foreign minister and a former Member of the European Parliament, which is a title he always retains. Of course, we tried to have everyone there and it was one of the positive points of the mission. We were able to put victims in all of the sections.

After the trips, what work do you have ahead?
More than a thousand amendments have already been submitted to the two reports [one on victims and the other on recommendations] and our group has registered 357. Once negotiated, the committee vote is scheduled for 25th April. And then it will have to be raised to the plenary and, depending on the agenda, it will be in May or June.

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The Pegasus committee plans to approve its final report on 25th April / Photo: Ana Beltrán

Is the committee's goal to end up agreeing to a moratorium on the use of this software and, in the long run, to ban it?
Everything is on the table, but I don't think there is agreement on banning it. Besides, I don't know if it would be possible for the Council to support that, no matter how much some of us would defend it. Reality leads us to work for a future regulated legal framework and that, until the framework is approved, there should be a moratorium. Now, among the groups we are discussing what each one's red lines and fine print are. It will be a moratorium that will limit its use only in certain cases and I think we will agree on this so that we are all comfortable.

In other words, the Omertà, the maintenance of silence, among the states that the rapporteur denounced will end up being imposed.
Yes, the member states want to continue using such powerful tools as these programs. They make it difficult for you to impose a ban and limitations.

The EU member states want to continue using such a powerful tool as Pegasus

The MEPs have complained that the unclear definition of national security in Spain is a kind of hotchpotch that can justify everything.
The thing is that even Justice commissioner Reynders is asking for work to be done to unify this definition. It is not only the Spanish state that uses it for espionage. In Hungary and Poland it is an excuse to destroy fundamental rights within the European Union. It has been seen that if we do not have a clear definition of what it is, the legislative work on defence matters becomes very complicated.

Could the report's inclusion of espionage against Catalan independence supporters be an argument to identify them as an "objectively identifiable group" [as mentioned by European Justice] when rejecting a hypothetical European Arrest Warrant against the exiled politicians?
In the report there will be mention of the cases of spying on pro-independence people and another thing is whether there will be references to the Spanish state's own motive to use Pegasus against those 65 people. For the latter there will not be sufficient majorities. That we are an identifiable group can be demonstrated in many ways, there is no need for a report from the European Parliament. The lawyers will have to find a way to be able to defend it.