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Spain court dismisses Morocco case against journalist

A Madrid court has dismissed a case brought by Morocco against a Spanish journalist who had accused Rabat of bugging his phone with Pegasus spyware.

The ruling, seen by AFP on Thursday, acquitted 68-year-old Ignacio Cembrero, dismissing Rabat’s claim he had engaged in “an act of bragging” about being the victim of phone bugging, allegedly by the Moroccan authorities.

The complaint relied on an archaic legal provision dating back to the Middle Ages against boasting about something without proof.

A spokesperson for the law firm representing Rabat told AFP Morocco would appeal the ruling.

The lawsuit had its roots in an explosive 2021 investigation by Forbidden Stories, a consortium of 17 Western media outlets, which found that more than 50,000 people — including activists, journalists, executives and politicians — might have been spied on using software developed by Israeli firm NSO.

Pegasus software can be used to access a phone’s messages, emails and photos, eavesdrop on calls, track the owner’s location and even film them with the camera.

At least 180 journalists in 20 countries were among those allegedly flagged for surveillance by NSO clients, including Cembrero, who has covered Moroccan affairs for over two decades and currently writes for El Confidencial news website.

Morocco was identified by Forbidden Stories as a country that had bought the software — a claim denied by Rabat.

Cembrero had already become convinced his phone was being monitored after Whatsapp messages he exchanged with Spanish officials were published by a news outlet close to the Moroccan authorities.

Since then, he has repeatedly stated, and even told the European Parliament, that Morocco was behind the bugging, while admitting he had no formal proof.

Soon after, Rabat filed suit, demanding he withdraw his allegations and pay Morocco’s legal costs. Cembrero said it was the fourth time Morocco had taken him to court.

– Remarks were ‘justified’ –

When the trial opened in Madrid in January, Morocco’s lawyer urged the court to exonerate Rabat of Cembrero’s claims it had bugged his phone with spyware.

But in her ruling, dated March 10, judge Sonia Lence Munoz acquitted Cembrero, citing his own acknowledgement it was “very difficult to prove or demonstrate it was Morocco which introduced the Pegasus software onto his mobile”.

The judge said, “The various statements by the defendant… were in response to the publication of a journalistic investigation by an international group — Forbidden Stories — about people who were spied on with Pegasus software.”

Such remarks were “justified by the gravity of the facts which led not only to a criminal investigation, but to demands for explanations in Spain’s parliament and the European parliament,” she wrote.

The court also ordered Rabat to pay all the legal costs.

Morocco has taken similar steps in France over claims Rabat used Pegasus to spy on politicians, including President Emmanuel Macron, and journalists — but the courts ruled the lawsuits inadmissible.