‘I Was in Touch With Likud, Israelis’: Pegasus Victims Fight Hungary, NSO

Six victims of Pegasus, represented by the ACLU in Hungary, are taking Orban’s government and Israeli spyware firm NSO to court over hacking

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets his Hungarian counter part Viktor Orban. Orban's government used NSO's spyware against journalists
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets his Hungarian counter part Viktor Orban. Orban's government used NSO's spyware against journalistsCredit: GPO, Marc Israel Sellem
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union is filing a lawsuit against the Hungarian government and the NSO Group in Hungary, Israel and in the EU, the organizations said on Friday.

This follows the revelations made as part of the Project Pegasus global investigation and subsequent reports that Viktor Orban's government used NSO's Pegasus to spy on journalists and activists.

The rights group is also demanding a criminal investigation of NSO and Israeli officials who authorized the sale of the spyware to Orban's regime.

The HCLU says it will file lawsuits in Israel, Hungary and the European Human Rights Court. The union is acting on behalf of four journalists whose devices were found to contain the spyware as well as two other victims.

The four are Brigitta Csikascz, David Drecsenyi, Daniel Nemeth and Szabolcs Panyi. The initiative was also joined by Adrien Beauduin, a gender studies doctoral candidate who was also confirmed to have had his phone infected after being arrested in a protest against Orbán’s policies, and a sixth victim who has asked to remain anynmous.

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Also on Friday, The New York Times reported that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used NSO's spyware as a central pillar of Israel's diplomatic policy in recent years, confirming past reporting by Haaretz. The report revealed that Netanyahu used Pegasus in deals with Gulf and European states, and even Mexico.

The investigation also revealed that despite long-standing U.S. concerns regarding the cyberoffense firm, the FBI was in touch with NSO about buying a new version of its spyware as late as 2019. However, U.S. officials were concerned with the legality of hacking into American citizens' cellphones.

Also on Friday, Finland said diplomats' cellphones were targeted and infected with the Pegasus.

'In touch with Likud'

“My phone was successfully hacked multiple times with Pegasus between April 2019 and November 2019,” Panyi, a journalist from the Hungarian investigative journalism outlet Direkt36, told lawyer Eitay Mack, who is assisting HCLU in Israel.

Szabolcs Panyi hold his iPhone as he sits with another Direkt36 journalist who was also targeted using NSO's Pegasus, likely by the Hungarian government Credit: Direkt36

Panyi, who writes for Direkt36 which deals with national security and corruption issues, told Haaretz he “found a pattern that my phone was hacked almost a dozen times only a few business days after I would send a request for comment from the Hungarian government.”

<< The NSO file: A complete (updating) list of individuals targeted with Pegasus software >>

“This only strengthens my belief that my work as a journalist made me a target. At that time, among others, I was investigating the personal and political relationship between Viktor Orban and then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said.

Panyi says that, “as a journalist, my iPhone is perhaps my most important tool. It includes both personal information but also professional communications I conducted, including sensitive talks with sources. For example, as part of an investigation I communicated extensively and even met with Israelis, Likud officials and activists, all for my investigation into Orban’s ties with Netanyahu.

‘I wasn’t surprised’

Bauduin, a Belgian-Canadian doctoral student in the Central European University in Hungary, joined the move, too.

Bauduin had been arrested in a demonstration in Budapest and charged with assaulting policemen, an offense carrying a penalty of up to eight years. He denied any involvement in any violent incident and his lawyer said there was no evidence against him apart from the testimony of a policeman, which had been copied from the case of another suspect in the attack. Afterward Bauduin left the country.

Protests against Orban in Budapest last year. A PhD candidate was targeted after being arrested at a similar protestCredit: MARTON MONUS/Reuters

“I didn’t know exactly the kind of surveillance that was used against me, but I noticed the police following me right after I was released from arrest...I noticed that I was followed to and from two demonstrations right after my release. Only later did I hear about Pegasus and that there was an attempt to use it to hack into my phone.”

“After it was revealed that I was attacked by Pegasus, I wasn’t surprised at all, considering that the Orban’s regime doesn’t care at all about Hungarian and international laws,” Bauduin said.

At that time Orban’s government acted to close down the Central European University founded by American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros, and even demanded to ban gender studies, Bauduin’s field. Another victim of surveillance by the Orban regime, who asked to remain nameless, has also joined the suits.

Legal fight

“The HCLU will use all possible legal means to protect the rights of those under constant illegal surveillance,” the union said, stressing that it began the campaign against using Pegasus by submitting complaints to the ministers in charge of the secret services. They will also urge an investigation of the Parliament’s National Security Committee and the Civil Rights Commission in Hungary.

The union also contacted Eitay Mack, who submitted a letter on its behalf to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on Friday morning, demanding to open a criminal investigation against the NSO Group and the officials who had authorized the spyware sale to Orban’s regime – the director of the Defense Exports Control Agency in the Ministry of Defense, and the head of the defense exports unit in the Foreign Ministry, who were together responsible for regulating the export of the Pegasus software, they said.

The union said it plans to file additional suits to the European Human Rights Court on behalf of the journalists and civil rights activists who had been victims of the Pegasus surveillance for political reasons, and who had been subjected to slander and what they describe as character assassination.

The union said that in Hungary a court order or any other order of an independent body is not required to authorize surveillance. All it takes is a decision of a minister that the surveillance is legal. The lack of oversight continues throughout and the people who were under surveillance are unaware of it, even after it ends.

“The problem is that there’s no independent oversight in Hungary over security agencies activities, and in fact they have unlimited surveillance powers,” Adam Remport, a HCLU official said, in a telephone call with Haaretz.

“They can use undercover surveillance for a very wide range of activities,” he said, noting there’s no significant supervision on the agencies involved.

Although this situation is reminiscent of the transparency and oversight in Israel, according to human rights activists the state of human rights in Hungary is much worse than in Israel, as reflected by the legislation against the LGBTQ community, the persecution of opposition officials and journalists and other steps to restrict democracy.

'Security agencies have unlimited surveillance powers,' says Adam Remport, a HCLU officialCredit: Anna Rubi, HCLU photo/video staff

Who exactly is threatening Hungary?

According to the government propaganda, “the European Union and the West – are the threat,” Remport said.

“We are members of NATO and of the European Union. I know it sounds crazy, and it also has concealed anti-Semitic and fascist undertones.”

He mentioned the regime’s ongoing campaign against Soros, whom Orban claims is trying to advance the left in Hungary through the media.

Kicking off his election campaign last year, Orban said the European Union wants to tell Poles and Hungarians how to live their lives. The “respectable” Europeans, as he put it, want “to force the Hungarians to become European, liberals,” and open them to “sexual diversity.” He called on Hungarians to be on their guard and protect the motherland. “When the time comes, stand in front of your houses and protect them!” he called.

“The use of secret services to serve those in power rather than the entire nation is terrifyingly familiar in central and east Europe,” said Ramport. “It’s unacceptable that national security services acts that are carried out undercover, should turn into an instrument of oppression and not an instrument of protecting people.”

When the Pegasus Project reports were first released about the use of Pegasus in Hungary, NSO said it did not have access to the information the company’s clients were gathering with the Pegasus software. The company also said it would “continue to investigate grounded claims of misuse (of its products) and take the required steps.”

Orban’s government denied at the time any use of Pegasus software against journalists or other targets. Despite the cloak of secrecy in Hungary, over time even ministers admitted that the software had been bought and had been used by the Orban regime.

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