Dear Aminatou, you are a non-violent advocate for the independence of Western Sahara, and for this you have received, among others, the alternative Nobel Prize. This is probably why you were attacked by the Pegasus spyware. What exactly happened? When was your phone infected?
I am a human rights defender in Western Sahara, and since my childhood I have been involved in the peaceful struggle for the independence of my country Western Sahara, and because of this I have suffered all kinds of atrocities from the Moroccan occupation authorities. I was a victim of enforced disappearance (from November 1987 to June 1991), torture and arbitrary detention. I was fired from my job in 2005 and expelled from my country in November 2009 and sent back, against my will and without passport, on a plane to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. My children were not spared from the repressive Moroccan policy.
As a gesture of recognition of the justness of the cause of my people, the Saharawi People, and to encourage me to continue my peaceful struggle for their legitimate rights, several international NGOs and state bodies have awarded me several human rights prizes… the last prize was the Alternative Nobel Prize 2019 awarded by the Right Livelihood Foundation.
As for your question, I assure you that I have been under surveillance by the Moroccan secret intelligence services since my release in June 1991, and because of the circumstances of my Saheawi patriotic activism in which I have been involved since my youth, I have always been careful with my telephone communications, my emails and the information I share in public. The same information has always been used by Morocco to limit my freedoms to the maximum and subsequently perpetrate serious violations against my person.
You learned about the attack from Apple, then you turned to the Right Livelihood Foundation and finally to Amnesty International’s security lab, which helped you get the details. How exactly did this happen?
About the Pegasus attack, I have to remember that the day I received the warning message from the company Apple, I contacted the Right Livelihood Foundation team. In passing on Apple‘ s message to them, the Foundation contacted Amnesty International for consultation, and Amnesty therefore asked them to contact directly the head of the organisation‘ s technical digital security laboratory.
Indeed, I personally contacted them in the second week of January 2022 and we immediately started the procedure of remote analysis of my two mobile phone devices an IPhone 6 and an IPhone 8). A few days later, I was contacted by the head of Amnesty’s digital security lab who informed me that both my mobile phone devices were infected and in which traces of the Pegasus malware were detected and that one of the two mobile phone devices bears traces of recent infection in November 2021; that is to say, a few months after the scandal and the protests at the international level that took place after the revelations and investigations published by Amnesty International
Who do you think was behind this attack? It is obvious that it was the Moroccan state. But which department, and was this confirmed by the state? Was there a court order for this?
I have publicly accused Morocco and in particular its secret services (DGED and DST), which have never stopped controlling me and publishing false information in the media to defame me.
Amnesty International, before publishing its press release, contacted Morocco and the Israeli company NSO. Morocco’s response was, as always, an attack on me and on Amnesty.
How did your relatives and political contacts react to the revelations? Because they are also affected, for example if the microphone or camera of their mobile phone was remotely activated or if messages were read?
The consequences were serious for my family circle or in the circles of my close friends, who had to limit their contacts with me to avoid being monitored via my mobile phone devices.
The Pegasus digital espionage case, however, has crossed all limits. Now, all my habits have been changed, affecting my work as an activist and also affecting my activities in my private life. Currently, I take a series of precautions and barriers to prevent the information I share from falling into the hands of dubious people.
And how do you deal with it today?
As for me personally, I still feel that I am being watched 24 hours a day inside my own house. I feel that my privacy has been usurped, as Amnesty International itself has warned that through the malicious program used to spy on me, the cameras and microphones of both my mobile phone devices were activated. My activities and the way I communicate have changed dramatically. Now I don’t feel safe to talk about personal things with the family and be very aware of their situation. This new spying technology could put my life and that of my family and colleagues in danger!
My work as a Sahrawi activist is now accompanied by additional precautionary measures. Like my colleagues, I have always been very cautious about sharing information by phone. Using so-called „secure applications“ or avoiding transmitting sensitive information was part of our measures, as we were always aware that we were under surveillance and spying, even before the use of the Pegasus software was revealed against me. Being abroad, I usually avoid contacting my Saharawi colleagues. Now, this becomes even more necessary.
One of the measures I have taken is to avoid carrying my two mobile phone devices that have been infected by the spying. Whenever I go out I disconnect from the Internet and this creates some discomfort for me. When I am in a work meeting or even at home, my two mobile phone devices were always away from me or in another room.
What do you expect from the work of the Pegasus Inquiry Committee in the European Parliament?
First of all, public denunciation of espionage and human rights violations against activists and innocent civilians is becoming a matter of great urgency. The European Parliament, the UN and all international bodies must take urgent action against those responsible for this digital espionage by the Moroccan state.
And finally, we will soon start drafting the final report, which should certainly only be available in spring. What do you think are the main demands that should be included in it?
The opening of an investigation to determine who has used these dangerous tools that endanger our lives and those of the people closest to us, whether at the family level (children) or in the circles of Sahrawi human rights activists.
Punish the companies behind the development of these digital spying tools and the countries that have used them to pursue activists.
It is inconceivable that a country like Morocco, catalogued by the UN and other international bodies as a country where the most human rights violations occur, including in the occupied territory of Western Sahara, could possess spying tools like Pegasus or other software with the same functionality.