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Lords of Spying: When would there be freedom of opinion and expression?

“Lords of Spying”, is how activists and human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia described senior officials in the Saudi regime, following the huge scandal of spying on dissidents, their families, and a number of politicians in other countries in order to limit their movement and silence them.

The scandal covered headlines of international newspapers everywhere, especially after revealing that Israeli companies were hired in this mission, which distorted the image of Saudi Arabia even more.

The Pegasus Project, a global investigation conducted by 17 media platforms, including the Washington Post and the British Guardian, revealed that Saudi Arabia used the “Pegasus” program, owned by the Israeli company NSO, to spy on the wife of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Hanan El-Atr, and a number of his activist friends, by examining data collected by the Forbidden Stories group.

The results of the “Project Pegasus” investigation were reached after examining leaked data of 50,000 phone numbers of people targeted by Israeli spyware.

According to the investigation, El-Atr’s phone was targeted in the months leading up to Khashoggi’s killing, which means that this spying operation was likely part of the coordination plan to assassinate the Saudi journalist inside his country’s consulate in Istanbul, who was at that time one of the most prominent opponents of the current Saudi regime, and a critic of the policies of the Saudi crown prince and the country’s de facto ruler, Mohamed bin Salman.

In a press statement, El-Atr said, “Jamal warned me before that I might be hacked. This makes me believe that they knew everything between me and Jamal and everything Jamal did through my phone.”

It is worth noting that the United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, played a major role in targeting the El-Atr phone in cooperation with the Saudi security forces.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz was one of the media platforms that contributed to the investigation, which was published more than two years ago, that Saudi Arabia paid $55 million in 2018 to use spyware, under a license from Israel, which owns NSO, while the company denies that its Pegasus program has any connection to the Khashoggi killing or spying.

In December 2018, a lawsuit was filed against the Israeli company in London by the Saudi dissident and Khashoggi’s friend, Omar Abdulaziz. 

Amnesty International also issued a statement against Israel’s granting of the program’s license to Saudi Arabia.

The investigation revealed targeting other Saudi dissidents using the “Pegasus” spyware, such as Loujain Al-Hathloul, the most famous Saudi women’s rights activist, who was arrested in May 2018.

The Pegasus spy program is a program that the Israeli company claims is used to help governments and regimes identify and track terrorists to thwart their plans, but the reality has proven that it is only used against activists and dissidents who seek to promote human rights and democratic values.

The cost of these programs is very high, sometimes equal to the budgets of entire countries, so why do these regimes spend such sums of money to obtain private information, personal photos, and social movements of opponents and activists? What danger could an opposition opinion pose to them?

The use of such technology is a major crime against freedom of opinion and expression, and a grave violation of privacy protected under international laws, charters, and conventions. The international community must take effective and serious measures to stop regimes and governments from using it against their people.

And we also wonder, when would the fierce security grip of the Saudi authorities of freedom of opinion and expression end?

Until when would high-ranking officials continue to enjoy impunity for all those crimes including targeting citizens in their own homes and violating their most basic rights: privacy!

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