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Morocco sues Spain reporter over spyware bugging claim

Morocco has filed a suit against a Spanish journalist who claimed his mobile phone was targeted by Pegasus spyware planted by Rabat, judicial sources said on Monday.

The complaint against Ignacio Cembrero, an expert on Spain-Morocco relations who works for El Confidencial news website, was accepted by a court in Madrid, a spokesman for the regional court authority said.

Last year, an investigation by 17 media organisations accused Morocco of using the Israeli-made spyware, which infiltrates mobile phones in order to extract data or to activate a camera or microphone to spy on their owners.

Rabat has denied the allegations.

According to a copy of the complaint seen by AFP, Morocco is demanding that Cembrero withdraw his allegations and pay Morocco’s legal costs.

“The Kingdom of Morocco is not involved in spying on Ignacio Cembrero nor on any other citizen” and “does not have the Pegasus programme”, the lawyer representing Rabat said.

Cembrero had also flagged the lawsuit on his Twitter account.

“Morocco is taking me to court for accusing it of spying with Pegasus,” he tweeted on Monday.

He has said it is “the fourth time” Morocco had sued him in Spain but the first time it had demanded he “retract” claims Rabat was responsible for spying with Pegasus software.

“It’s a political trial to curtail journalists’ freedom of expression,” he tweeted.

The Moroccan lawsuit against Cembrero was promptly denounced by media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“Accused of using Pegasus spyware, the Moroccan authorities are suing journalist Ignacio Cembrero, himself a victim of this spying, for defamation,” it tweeted.

“RSF denounces these repeated attacks on this journalist and reaffirms its support for his freedom to work.”

– Cembrero ‘flagged for surveillance’ –

According to the Pegasus investigation published in July 2021, the mobile phones of at least 180 journalists in 20 countries were flagged as targets for surveillance by clients of the spyware’s manufacturer, Israeli firm NSO Group.

Their numbers appeared on a list of more than 50,000 people selected for surveillance that was leaked to French NGO Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, who then shared the information with more than a dozen media organisations.

The list included the mobile numbers of human rights defenders, political opponents, business executives and even heads of state.

Morocco was singled out as one of the countries which had bought the programme from NSO Group and whose intelligence services had used the spyware against journalists.

Rabat has categorically denied the allegations and quickly moved to file defamation suits in France against Amnesty and the French NGO as well as other media outlets.

But the claims were ruled inadmissible by the courts in March.

According to Forbidden Stories, Cembrero’s mobile was one of a number of phones singled out “for targeting” with Pegasus.

In May, the Spanish government revealed that the mobile phones of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and several other top ministers had been hacked using Pegasus software.

Although the government did not know what information was extracted from the phones or who was behind it, it was convinced it was “an external attack”.

The hacking took place in May and June 2021 at the height of a major dispute between Spain and Morocco which was only resolved earlier this year.