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Dubai’s ruler used Pegasus spyware to spy on his ex-wife Haya, confirms UK’s High Court

This is yet another sign of Pegasus misused and unlawful surveillance carried out by governments to settle personal scores.

justice, law, globe

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum’s agents hacked the phone of his ex-wife Princess Haya using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware in an unlawful abuse of power and trust, read the ruling by the English High Court, according to a report in The Guardian. The court added that Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler and the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), hacked Haya, her divorce lawyer Fiona Shackleton, and four of her other associates, the British daily reported. 

The senior judge Sir Andrew McFarlane delivered the ruling in the case of a bitter custody battle that emerged between the al-Maktoum and Haya after she fled to London with their two children in April 2019.

The ruling substantiates the investigation undertaken by the Pegasus Project, a consortium of 17 media organisations. It found that journalists, heads of state, activists, civil servants, and others were potential targets of military-grade spyware sold only to government clients by the NSO Group. 

The judgement is yet another indication that Pegasus was misused and unlawful surveillance was carried out by governments to settle personal scores. The judgement will also have implications on Britain’s relationship with the UAE in the coming days.

Findings of the Court

Haya’s phone was ascertained to have been hacked 11 times in July and August last year with Sheikh Mohammed’s “express or implied authority”, The Guardian said in another report

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“Firstly, it is obvious that the father (Sheikh Mohammed), above any other person in the world, is the probable originator of the hacking. No other potential perpetrator, being a person or government that may have access to Pegasus software, can come close to the father in terms of probability,” Judge McFarlane was quoted as saying.

The Court also found that 265 megabytes of data was siphoned away during a hack, This is equivalent to about 24 hours of digital voice recording data or 500 photographs.

Judge McFarlane’s findings were based on the lower civil standard of proof, which requires a conclusion on the balance of probabilities rather than the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt, the Guardian clarified. 

NSO’s comments

NSO also informed the court that its software had been misused to target both Princess Haya and Shackleton. An admission by the company which has zealously denied allegations levelled against Pegasus’ illegal use. 

NSO, in its letter, said it had become “aware of a possible use of the technology by a customer that was not in accordance with the contractual terms applicable to it” and that “information was provided to NSO that raised the possibility that Baroness Shackleton’s mobile phone, that of another unnamed member of her firm and that of her client (Princess Haya), may have been compromised”, The Guardian reported. 

NSO told the court it had terminated its contract with the UAE following the incident, according to ReutersThe company has shut down six systems of past customers, amounting to contracts worth more than $300 million, the report added. 

UAE’s rebuttal 

Sheikh Mohammed’s legal team claimed that the court had no jurisdiction to sit in judgment on a foreign act of state in order to prevent McFarlane ruling on the phone hacking. The claim was summarily rejected by the high court and court of appeal, with the UK’s supreme court refusing to allow a further appeal, read the Guardian report. 

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The legal team also tried to suggest that other nations, from Israel to Saudi Arabia to Jordan, may have been responsible. But their arguments were rejected consistently by the high court and the court of appeal.  

How has India dealt with Pegasus? 

The net of the alleged Pegasus attack ensnared more than 300 Indians according to an investigation by The Wire. Many of them are journalists, politicians, academicians, bureaucrats, security officials, and businessmen.

The Indian government has consistently avoided confirming that it licensed Pegasus. Moreover, it has dismissed the allegations as exaggerated and sensational. It has also not initiated any investigation into the purported surveillance causing outrage among the opposition and civil society.

There are ten petitions filed before the Supreme Court of India. The Court is set to pass interim orders in which it will set up a technical committee of experts to investigate the circumstances surrounding the spyware, after a hearing on September 13.

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