The leader of one of the UK’s closest allies in the Middle East has been caught up in the furore surrounding the Pegasus spyware from NSO Group.
Agents acting on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who is vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), hacked the phone of his ex-wife Princess Haya, a senior high court judge in London has ruled.
The judge, who is president of the family division, was quoted by the Guardian as saying that the hack was an unlawful abuse of power and trust.
The judge found that Haya and five of her associates had been hacked, while the couple were locked in court proceedings in London concerning the welfare of their two children.
Haya had fled to London in April 2019 with the couple’s two young children, triggering a still ongoing legal battle over custody, access and financial support.
Those hacked included two of Haya’s lawyers, one of whom, Fiona Shackleton, sits in the House of Lords.
Shackleton was tipped off about the hacking by Cherie Blair, who works with the Israeli NSO Group.
The Guardian said its investigation in July had revealed that Haya and her associates were on a dataset believed to indicate people of interest to a government client of NSO, thought to be Dubai.
Sir Andrew McFarlane’s judgement from 5 May, only now published, appears to confirm that finding – which was part of the Pegasus project investigation – and goes further in saying that unlawful surveillance was actually carried out.
Haya’s phone was found to have been hacked 11 times in July and August last year with Sheikh Mohammed’s “express or implied authority”, the Guardian reported.
But it should be noted that McFarlane’s findings were 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.
In another judgement by McFarlane, one of 11 rulings to which the Guardian and other news organisations were granted access on Wednesday, it was revealed that agents working on behalf of the sheikh had attempted to buy a £30m estate next door to Haya’s Berkshire home.
In response, the judge created a 100-metre exclusion zone around her property and a 1,000ft no-fly zone above it to protect her.
In his phone-hacking judgement, McFarlane criticised Sheikh Mohammed in the strongest terms.
“The findings represent a total abuse of trust, and indeed an abuse of power, to a significant extent,” he reportedly said. “I wish to make it plain that I regard the findings that I have now made to be of the utmost seriousness in the context of the children’s welfare. They may well have a profound impact upon the ability of the mother and of the court to trust him with any but the most minimal and secure arrangements for contact with his children in the future.”
What should be noted that about this case is the co-operation of the Israeli surveillance specialist NSO.
Indeed, according to Reuters, NSO ended its contract with the United Arab Emirates to use Pegasus because Dubai’s ruler was using it to hack the phones of his ex-wife and some close to her, her lawyers told the UK’s High Court.
During the hearings, the high court heard that NSO had cancelled its contract with the UAE for breaching its rules on using Pegasus.
“Whenever a suspicion of a misuse arises, NSO investigates, NSO alerts, NSO terminates,” NSO was quoted by Reuters as saying in a statement after the rulings were published.
It only licenses its software to government intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
NSO said it had shut down six systems of past customers, contracts worth more than $300 million, but did not name names.
The sheikh however has rejected the high court’s conclusions, saying they were based on an incomplete picture.
“I have always denied the allegations made against me and I continue to do so,” he reportedly said in a statement.
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