Morocco files slander suit against Spanish journalist over 'Pegasus claims'

Morocco files slander suit against Spanish journalist over 'Pegasus claims'
3 min read
05 July, 2022
In May this year, the leading Spanish newspaper El Correo said Morocco was reportedly being investigated by Spanish intelligence agencies as the source behind the malware targeting several Spanish officials.
"It's a political trial to curtail journalists' freedom of expression," reacted the Spanish journalist. [Getty]

Morocco has filed a suit against the Spanish journalist Ignacio Cembrero for "slander" after he accused Rabat of hacking his phone with the Israeli Pegasus spyware, reported AFP news agency on Monday.

Morocco, which has been at the centre of the Pegasus scandal since 2020, has submitted a suit to a court in Madrid demanding Cembrero withdraw his accusations and reimburse the costs of the trial.

"The reality is that the Kingdom of Morocco is not responsible for spying on D. Ignacio Cembrero, nor on any other citizen. The Kingdom of Morocco does not have the Pegasus program," Rabat's lawyer states in the lawsuit ,according to the AFP.

Cembrero has worked as a correspondent in the Maghreb region for most of his career, often incurring the wrath of Moroccan authorities due to his writings. According to various reports, he was under surveillance via the Pegasus spyware in 2019.  

In 2013, the Moroccan prime minister filed a criminal complaint in Spain against the journalist. The prime minister alleged Cembrero was "inciting terrorism" when he included a link to an Al-Qaeda video in a blog post on El País's website two months prior. The case was dismissed twice by a Spanish judge.

The Moroccan media owner Ahmed Charai, whom Cembrero said was connected to the Moroccan intelligence agency, also filed a complaint that was dismissed by a Spanish judge. 

Cembrero, who currently worked as an expert on Spanish-Moroccan relations at the Spanish news website El Confidentiel, described Rabat's recent suit against him as "a political trial to curtail journalists' freedom of expression."

This is not the first time Rabat has taken legal actions in regards to accusations of it using the Israeli spyware of pegasus, which it continually denies.

Last year the kingdom filed defamation claims against Amnesty international and the non-profit French media Forbidden stories for listing Rabat among dozens of states that spy on their opponents via the advanced spyware.

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 Israeli spyware manufacturer 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. 

Many Moroccan journalists and activists further affirmed that they were victims of the state’s espionage, including journalist Omar Radi and Soulaiman Raissouni who were recently sentenced to prison for sexual assault charges. Reporters Without Borders say their cases were politically motivated.

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Amongst the list of names identified as potential Pegasus targets by Moroccan intelligence services include Moroccan King Mohammed VI and France's President Emmanuel Macron.

In May this year, the leading Spanish newspaper El Correo said Morocco is reportedly being investigated by Spanish intelligence agencies as the source behind the malware targeting several Spanish officials' phones.

The Spanish government said the mobile phones of Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister, and Margarita Robles, the defence minister, were both infected last year with the Pegasus spyware.

The British newspaper the Guardian has also reported that more than 200 Spanish mobile numbers were highlighted as possible targets for surveillance by an NSO Group client believed to be Morocco, according to the data leak investigated by the Pegasus project.