It is not just Catalonia that has been jolted by the Pegasus spyware affair. Politicians and officials at the European Union have also seen this year how cyberespionage using this Israeli-produced software has placed itself at the epicentre of a long list of concerns, after its use was revealed in a handful of countries on the continent, including Hungary and Poland. Faced with this serious new threat, the European institutions moved quickly to face the questions raised - including those provoked by by the Catalangate case after it broke in April. The last week has been key in this investigation: the spokesperson for the European Parliament's Pegasus committee published its draft report, which included the conclusion that the Spanish state is directly responsible for the cyberespionage against over sixty people close to the Catalan independence movement. And last Tuesday, the European Parliament held a hearing exclusively focused on Pegasus use in Spain. With the Catalangate case being by far the largest and most complex element in that category, it was hoped that the European chamber would listen to the stories of a range of the victims, but rejection by some parliamentary groups prevented this, with lawyer Andreu Van den Eynde being the only victim allowed to appear. In response, the Greens and European Left groups set up a parallel session in which main figures of the independence movement who were spied on using the software were able to attend, thus overcoming the veto. The Belgian MEP Saskia Bricmont, coordinator of the Greens in the Pegasus committee, has been one of the main voices critical of the cyberespionage, including that which took place in the Catalangate context, and was one of the driving forces behind the alternative audience. ElNacional.cat interviews her to find out how she sees the latest events in the European chamber and what she thinks of the Spanish approach to the Pegasus controversy.
On Tuesday we had Van den Eynde at the European Parliament's Pegasus committee denouncing Catalangate, but he was the only victim who was able to appear. Were the others banned?
There was no interest from the European political groups of the Socialists, the People's Party and the Liberals to include the victims. The main argument I heard was that we had already had victims at other hearings, and that we didn't need to hear any more. I did not agree and presented the issue at the political level. Finally, we achieved to have José Javier Olivas, a critic of the CitizenLab report, not heard, and instead we would have a victim on the panel.
You say it was the political groups' decision to veto the presence of victims. Do you think there was pressure from the Spanish PP and PSOE towards their European colleagues?
Yes, there was definitely an influence from their work and on the hearing organized on Spain. I don't know what was said within each group, but it is clear that there was an influence on the part of the Spanish members of each group.
The Spanish MEPs in the European groups pressured their colleagues to avoid including Catalangate victims in the Pegasus committee hearing
And why do you think that the Spanish MEPs tried to pressure their groups to avoid the appearance of victims?
One potential reason is to avoid the diversity of victims. There are those who know officially that they are part of the 18 victims recognized by the Spanish government, against whom they claimed that they had judicial permission to spy. But there are also the victims from the group of 47 people who still do not know why and by whom they were spied on, presumably without judicial permission. And we have situations where judicial investigations [in Spain] are being abandoned. The diversity of profiles, but all related to the Catalan case, is politically problematic for the Spanish government.
The ERC parliamentarian Diana Riba, who is also a member of the Greens, said that the Spanish government has tried to silence the victims of Catalangate.
It's true, they are trying to hide the fact that Catalangate is the biggest cyber-espionage scandal in Europe. There are cases open with four member states, one of which is Spain, where Pegasus has been used illegally. But before the Pegasus committee, the Spanish government practically did not react and the European Commission did not react either. Despite our investigation, we have only received a response from Spain based on the defence of 'national security', without taking into account the full violation of the victims' privacy rights, without granting them access to justice. There is no investigation to resolve what happened and no assumption of responsibility, despite the fact that it appears to have been illegal.
You mention the 'national security' excuse made by the Spanish government to spy on independence. Is it a valid reason?
No, because national security must also be used in a very limited way, with accountability. It's the problem we have with all the member countries that have used this reasoning: there is no shared definition of what national security is, and no clarity on what is allowed and prohibited in the name of national security. Violations of human rights should not be allowed, even under the pretext of national security. Spying with Pegasus was neither necessary nor appropriate, and these principles must be respected.
Catalangate was neither necessary nor appropriate, and the national security excuse used by Spain is invalid
During the Pegasus committee's session on Tuesday, the director of Spain's Intelligence Centre (CNI), Esperanza Casteleiro, remained silent before the questions of the Catalan MEPs, claiming that she could only answer before the Spanish official secrets committee.
The responses must come first from official authorities and governments. This is the first problem we have encountered with all the member states, and with Spain too: the absence of adequate responses and judicial investigations. It is inadmissible, but I was not surprised that the CNI director did not give any more information. A [Spanish] parliamentary commission of inquiry needs to know what happened and have access to the information. Blocking access to parliamentarians, on the one hand, is not democratic and does not help guarantee transparency for citizens; on the other hand, I don't know if they realize that the more they obstruct our work, the more we will be able to rely on alternative sources of information, which they are now criticizing in an attempt to undermine credibility. This is the typical way of acting that we have seen in Poland, Hungary, Greece... regimes that are more and more authoritarian. The way the Spanish government is acting, without guaranteeing access to information or transparency or judicial investigations, is highly problematic.
Do you think that Spain is acting in an authoritarian way, then?
I cannot compare the situations between Spain and authoritarian regimes, it is not the same. But, with regard to the rights of Catalans, I am sorry to say that there is a violation of respect for democratic principles and judicial independence.
Spain is failing to respect democratic principles and judicial independence with the Catalans
You were saying that the Pegasus committee has to rely on reports from journalists and human rights organizations because governments are not giving you information on espionage, but then they themselves criticize you for not having "credible" sources. It is quite hypocritical.
Of couse. They are not happy with the revelations because they have something to hide. If they respected the law and had nothing to hide, they would share their information to confirm that they have nothing to do with the espionage. If not, there must be independent judicial investigations into the espionage allegations. This is how a democracy works. Now, I am very grateful for all the investigative work that journalists and experts have done. Just last week we received four experts who said that we need more Citizen Labs around the world, and also in Europe.
The veto of the European MEP groups in having Catalangate victims in the Pegasus speaking at the committee led you to hold a parallel session with a handful of victims on Tuesday itself. How was this meeting organized and who promoted it?
It was a completely open session, and we invited all groups to join. We organized it because we thought it necessary to hear the diversity of profiles that have been spied on, the reasons why they were spied on, the impact on their private lives, but also the impact on their professional activity. We heard from Òmnium Cultural, who told us about their difficulty in working after being spied on: they are afraid that this surveillance will lead to their arrest and there is a paralyzing effect. They cannot operate as they would if they were in a free society. It is very important to give a voice to victims, because one of the conclusions of our work in the committee is that there is no access to reparations or justice for victims.
They are playing with the clock, delaying until it is too late to organize to Spain over their use of Pegasus
You also referred to the transparency of governments. Spain is the only country that has so far avoided a European mission on the use of Pegasus. If an extension of the committee term is obtained, will there be time to send the mission?
Officially, the decision to go or not to go to Spain has not been made. At the moment, we do not have a decision that says either yes or no. But I think they are playing with the clock until it is too late to organize the mission in Spain. If we don't launch the mission in the next few weeks or next month it will be too late, considering also that the final version of the report will be voted on in April, and it doesn't make much sense to organize the mission after the report is published . And, on the other hand, there are to be elections in Spain. It is true that they are municipal, but it could also influence the argument of some groups for avoiding the mission. It's problematic because in other countries it was quite normal: there was no debate about organizing a mission to a country that was being investigated at the Pegasus Commission hearing. But no decision has been made with Spain yet. This is why we insist, and this is why the European Left organized an alternative mission and went to Madrid.
Be that as it may, the whole thing looks like another attempt by Spain to avoid accountability for CatalanGate.
That's exactly what it looks like.
Recently, voices have begun to appear that suggest banning the use of Pegasus in the European Union, also from members of the Catalan Parliament. Is that viable?
There is a full possibility of moving towards a ban, given that such intrusive devices have no respect for proportionality or necessity. The NSO company presented this spy program as a tool that allowed governments to fight terrorism, but its use has spread disproportionately, without any limits or respect for the right to privacy or other fundamental rights. That is a key argument for a ban. The Pegasus committee rapporteur's report talks about a moratorium. It would be significant to apply one, but with a strong emphasis on ultimately achieving a ban.