Foreign Office ‘equivocating’ over claims Spanish government hacked Scots lawyer | #government | #hacking | #cyberattack

Foreign Office ‘equivocating’ over claims Spanish government hacked Scots lawyer

THE FOREIGN Office has refused to comment on claims the Spanish government hacked the phone of a high-profile Scottish lawyer.

Last week, The Herald revealed that Aamer Anwar believed he was among the victims of the Catalangate scandal, where people associated with Catalonian independence had their phones targeted by the Israeli spyware, Pegasus.

READ MORE: Scots lawyer claims Spain used Pegasus to hack his phone during Clara Ponsati trial

However, speaking in the Commons today, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said the claim could not be corroborated.

Mr Anwar said he was not surprised: “I expect no assistance from Downing Street on upholding the rule of law, when they can not be trusted to obey the law themselves.”

According to Citizen Lab, a group based at the University of Toronto specialising in high-tech human-rights abuses, at least 65 people – including current and former presidents – had phones and computers infected with the mercenary software.

The researchers positively identified Clara Ponsati as one of those targeted. At the time, she was living in exile in Scotland.

The academic, who briefly served as Catalonia’s education minister, fled to Belgium, with Carles Puigdemont, and three other cabinet members when Madrid sacked the Catalan government and imposed direct rule on the region after the 2017 declaration of independence.

She moved to Fife in March 2018, returning to the job she’d previously held at St Andrew’s University when the Spanish supreme court withdrew an international arrest warrant in her name.

However, no sooner had Ms Ponsati returned to Scotland, when the court changed tack, re-issuing the warrant.

Mr Anwar was part of the academic’s legal team, fighting the attempt to have her extradited back to Spain.

He told The Herald that he and other members working on the case suspected at the time that they were being hacked.

Joanna Cherry, the MP and QC, raised the claim in the House of Commons during Foreign Office questions.

She told MPs: “The Spanish government stands accused of using Pegasus, the controversial Israeli spyware to hack into the phone of a Scottish solicitor who was representing Professor Clara Ponsati, Catalonia’s former education minister and now a member of the European parliament.

“Does the Foreign Secretary agree with me that if this occurred, it would be a disgraceful breach of solicitor-client privilege and a direct attack on a democratically elected politician?

“And will the Foreign Secretary take this matter up with the Spanish ambassador the next time she meets with him?”

Answering on behalf of the foreign office, junior minister James Cleverly told the MP: “I can assure the honourable lady and this House that we have a very strong international relationship with Spain, we’re able to raise all kinds of issues.

“I am not going to speculate on the details, or comment on the details she’s raised, I have no way of corroborating them but I can assure her that this government will always stand up for the rule of law and the willingness to support that.”

Ms Cherry, who is the deputy chair of parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, said she’d be taking the matter further.

She said: “If true, allegations that the Spanish Government used spyware to hack into the phone of a Scottish solicitor would be a disgraceful breach of solicitor and client privilege; this should be of grave concern to the UK Government.

“However, James Cleverly equivocated in his answer to me and even seemed to have a little chuckle. I will be writing to the Foreign Secretary to press these issues with her directly.”

Mr Anwar said he was not surprised by the lack of assistance from the minister.

He said: “When the Spanish Government unleashed brute force on the Catalan people for exercising their right to vote, the UK government stood by and watched. I expect no assistance from Downing Street on upholding the rule of law, when they can not be trusted to obey the law themselves.

“Since the time of Franco, Spain has operated as a rogue state, using unelected judges to declare war on Catalonia. What should really disturb James Cleverly is not just the unlawful hacking of our phones, but the fact that Catalan ministers are political exiles in the heart of Europe.”

Citizen Lab says their forensic analysis indicates that Pol Cruz, who worked for Ms Ponsati after she was elected to the European parliament, had his computer infected with Pegasus on or around July 7, 2020.

The spyware is made by the Israel-based NSO Group. It’s also believed to have made “multiple” infections within Downing Street and the Foreign Office in 2020 and 2021.

NSO insist they only sell the software to governments for the purposes of tracking criminals and terrorists, and that each sale is regulated by the Israeli government.

However, last November, the US Commerce Department blacklisted the company, saying its tools had been used to “conduct transnational repression”.

Over the weekend, authorities in Spain announced a full investigation into the allegations.

Félix Bolaños, the minister for presidency and relations with parliament, said they had a “clean conscience” and “nothing to hide”.

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