The wife of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is preparing to file a lawsuit in the United States against spyware maker NSO Group, claiming she was targeted by the Israeli company’s Pegasus software.
Hanan El-Eter, 52, plans to sue the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their involvement in the alleged attempts to install software on her mobile phone.
She receives support for her attempts to gather evidence for the cases from Agnes Callamard, the former UN official who investigated the murder in her role as special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings.
Elatr, who is in the United States where she has applied for political asylum, is seeking to recover two mobile phones, an iPad and a laptop belonging to her husband believed to be in the possession of the Turkish authorities to assist in her case.
She said, “It is important that everyone involved in this horrific crime is held accountable. My husband was a peaceful man. I believe in American justice.”
Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
American intelligence services concluded that the killing was with the approval of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, which he denied, describing it as a “heinous crime” and a “mistake … committed by officials working in the Saudi government.” The Saudi government tried 11 men for the murder and sentenced five to death, although the death sentences were later overturned.
Evidence emerged last year that an NSO client targeted Elatr several months before her husband’s death, between November 2017 and April 2018.
Pegasus software can turn a phone into a surveillance device, with microphones and cameras activated without the user’s knowledge.
A forensic examination of Elatr’s Android phone in 2021 found that four text messages containing malicious links linked to Pegasus had been sent, although a successful installation was not proven by analysis.
Activity on Elatr’s phone confiscated during a period in which she was held by Emirati intelligence services after her arrest at Dubai airport in April 2018 indicates an attempt to install the software at that time.
An NSO spokesperson dismissed Elatr’s allegations. “NSO has repeatedly stated that our technology was not in any way connected with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or any of his family members, including Hanan al-Eter,” he said.
Elater said she was determined to use US courts to obtain full disclosure about who was spying on her husband and those close to him in the lead up to his murder.
As she builds her legal case, Elatr is seeking to obtain her husband’s cell phones and other devices and in Istanbul at the time of his death, which she believes are in the custody of Turkish authorities.
An attempt by Randa Fahmy, legal counsel for Elatr, to secure the devices from the Turkish embassy in Washington last year failed, as officials insisted she would need to file a legal application in Turkey.
However, the White House is being pressured to intervene after a Turkish court decided to suspend the trial in absentia of 26 Saudis accused of the murder, before it was transferred to Saudi Arabia.
Callamard said in a statement that she has been prevented in the past from recovering phones.
She said: “As a United Nations special rapporteur investigating the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the Saudi state, I knew from the early days that Turkish authorities were holding Jamal’s phones and computer as part of their investigation.
“From the beginning of the investigation, in my meetings with the attorney general, I asked if they investigated whether phones or computers had been hacked but received no response other than that it was ‘ongoing’.
“In my last meeting with the attorney general, I suggested that perhaps other experts should be brought in, such as within the FBI, given how difficult it is to track and identify spyware like Pegasus. But they refused or resisted the suggestion.
I had hoped that during the trial in Turkey the prosecutor would reveal the information they collected on Jamal’s phones or computer. But as we know, this unfortunately did not happen, and the trial in Turkey has now been abruptly ended. without justice being served.”
Callamard, who is now Secretary-General of Amnesty International, added: “I have been informed of Hanan Al Otar Khashoggi’s efforts to secure these materials from the Turkish authorities. I certainly support such efforts.
The Turkish government has made it clear that it does not intend to proceed with the investigation and trial. So she must hand any evidence still in her hands to those who are truly and genuinely determined to uncover the truth about Jamal’s murder.
“Determining whether his phones have been hacked, whether he is under digital surveillance, identifying spyware – these are all critical elements for the purpose of telling the truth, understanding and preventing the targeting of dissidents.”
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