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Spain court hears Rabat case over reporter's spyware claim

A studio photographic illustration shows the website of NSO Group on a phone -- court documents suggested creditors sought to push the firm to continue selling Pegasus spyware to countries with questionable rights records
— Madrid (AFP)

Morocco demanded Friday that a Madrid court rule it had nothing to do with the possible installation of Pegasus spyware on the phone of a Spanish journalist, who has blamed Rabat.

Its call came as the court heard Rabat's case against Ignacio Cembrero, an expert on Spain-Morocco relations, who works for El Confidencial news website.

"It is not possible to confirm that the Kingdom of Morocco has any responsibility whatsoever" in this spyware affair, Sergio Berenguer, one of Rabat's lawyers told the court.

Asked if he wanted to retract his claim that Morocco was responsible for bugging his phone with the spyware, Cerebrometer refused to back down.

"I confirm everything that I've said," he told the court, which will issue its decision in the coming weeks.

The dispute stems back to July 2021 when a joint investigation by several Western media outlets found that more than 50,000 people around the world -- among them activists, journalists, executives and politicians -- had been spied on using the software developed by Israeli firm NSO.

The spyware infiltrates mobile phones to extract data or to activate a camera or microphone to spy on their owners.

On the list were the phone numbers of least 180 journalists in 20 countries who had been flagged as targets for surveillance by NSO clients.

Morocco was singled out as one of the countries that had bought the programme and whose intelligence services had used the spyware against journalists -- a claim denied by Rabat.

- 'An act of bragging' -

The list was first leaked to Amnesty International and French NGO Forbidden Stories, who confirmed Cembrero's number was on the list.

Shortly before the investigation, Cembrero became convinced his phone was being monitored after private Whatsapp messages he had exchanged with Spanish officials were published by a news outlet very close to the Moroccan authorities.

Pegasus spyware: from smartphone to spy-master

Since then, Cembrero has repeatedly claimed in various articles, interviews and even before the European Parliament, that Morocco was behind the bugging, while admitting he had no formal proof.

Rabat quickly moved to file suit, demanding he withdraw his allegations and pay Morocco's legal costs.

Morocco has previously taken similar steps in France over claims it used Pegasus software to spy on politicians, among them President Emmanuel Macron, and journalists.

The French courts ruled the lawsuits inadmissible.

In Spain, lawyers for the kingdom have resorted to using an archaic legal provision that dates back to the Middle Ages, accusing Cembrero of "an act of bragging" -- in this case, boasting of something without proof.

"I've reached the conclusion.. that only a foreign power, in this case Morocco, could have hacked my phone," Cembrero told the court, saying he had been subjected to "harassment" by Rabat.

This was the fourth time since 2014 he had been sued by the kingdom, he added.