Amnesty’s allegations of phone spying by Morocco smack of plain amateurism

Not able to provide evidence, Amnesty has drawn itself into a political quagmire.

Tuesday 14/07/2020
The logo of the human rights organization Amnesty International is pictured in Berlin. (DPA)
The logo of the human rights organization Amnesty International is pictured in Berlin. (DPA)

Morocco is still waiting for Amnesty International to provide evidence of its accusations to authorities that they hacked the phone of a reporter.

But Amnesty International is beating around the bush. The Moroccan government has made a single request to AI: provide proof of your accusations. In the meantime, the human rights group is lost in semantic considerations and biased reminders of the kingdom’s human rights matters “balance sheet,” instead of providing the long-awaited material evidence.

Morocco’s unique request is both rational and logical while Amnesty shows, day after day, that it clearly does not have any evidence for the accusation it has levelled at Rabat. Its charges have nonetheless provided the basis for stories in no less than 17 international media outlets.

Moroccan authorities’ insistent request was exacerbated July 10, when Amnesty’s acting secretary general, Julie Verhaar, kicked into the long grass in her response to a letter from Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani.

In response, Othmani told state news agency MAP that “in the Moroccan government, we always insist on sending us a copy of the forensic report adopted to address unfounded accusations or make it public.”

In fact, the situation has begun to resemble a dialogue of the deaf. And the side that pretends not to hear is, indeed, Amnesty International.

To understand the ins and outs of this imbroglio, one needs to go back to June 22, the date of the publication of the famous “report” in which Amnesty International accused Morocco of spying on journalist Omar Radi’s mobile phone.

Missing evidence

On June 22, AI reported on its website that it discovered that Radi’s phone was infected with Pegasus, a powerful spy system designed by Israeli company NSO Group. It claimed to have reached the conclusion after having the phone examined by an expert.

AI argued that the spyware allows access to all the data saved on the phone and is even able to activate its camera and microphone.

AI’s text is long, very long, but it did not provide the most important element: convincing evidence. The people who wrote the text called it a report, which was supposed to reflect a forensics approach to  the issue but, in fact, it was just a speech.

In its presentation, Amnesty tried to establish two facts, but to no avail. The first fact, which did not concern Morocco, is that Radi’s cell phone had the spyware Pegasus installed into it. The second alleged fact is that the Moroccan state was behind the spying operation. But at no time could AI or its laboratory (Security Lab), to whom it entrusted the analysis of the mobile phone, provide proof of this accusation.

To lay such a serious accusation against a state, one must yet give irrefutable material evidence. On this specific point, Amnesty’s “report” failed miserably to turn prejudice into clear evidence.

This “report,” with an eye-catching headline, Moroccan Journalist Targeted With Network Injection Attacks Using NSO Group’s Tools, was used for the media campaign targeting Morocco. To make sure its accusation had an international impact, Amnesty entrusted the report, before its publication, to the partners of Forbidden Stories. While for other business, like “Green Blood,” journalists of media partners of Forbidden Stories carry out investigations, in this case it was Amnesty that provided the material to international media, whose role did not exceed that of a simple case of reasoning.

While Forbidden Stories has so far been interested in unfinished stories of journalists, some of whom were murdered to prevent them from pursuing their investigations, Radi is alive and well.

Newspapers as prestigious as The Guardian, The Washington Post, El Pais and Le Monde took the accusations made by Amnesty at face value, without bothering to contact the accused party to seek a response to the allegations. Indeed, none of these newspapers contacted Moroccan authorities to find out their position. As for Amnesty, which claims to have contacted Moroccan authorities to ask for a comment on the content of its “report,” its so called correspondence speaks volumes about the lack of seriousness and the casualness with which the issue was addressed.

Moroccan authorities say they were never contacted by Amnesty to comment on the accusation they are facing. Amnesty claims to have contacted the Moroccan government, which did not follow up. To prove its good faith, Amnesty even leaked correspondence with the office of the prime minister to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, a pan-Arab news outlet based in London.

After reading the correspondence, Moroccan authorities were apparently speechless. It was an email dated June 6 sent by Amnesty employee Claudio Guarnieri to a government official, who was asked to pass along the message to Othmani. In this email, Guarnieri said he was having trouble sending a fax directly to the prime minister and nicely asked the official to transmit the content of his correspondence to Othmani.

It is necessary to keep in mind that Amnesty International has an office in Rabat and a representative, Mohamed Sektaoui, who could have easily resolved the fax connection problem by corresponding with the secretariat of the prime minister. Why didn’t Amnesty task its office in Morocco with giving this correspondence to Othmani? Is it very likely to think that fax problems prevented Amnesty from getting in touch with its Moroccan bureau?

Who is Claudio Guarnieri, who hopelessly sought to reach Othmani?

According to Amnesty, he is the person in charge of Amnesty’s Security Lab, which analysed Radi’s mobile phone issue. Therefore he is a simple technician and not even a member of the secretariat of this organisation, yet he still addresses the head of the Moroccan government.

Is it customary for correspondence addressed to a prime minister be signed by an employee who is not part of Amnesty’s leadership? With this type of correspondence, the acting secretary-general of Amnesty should have addressed Othmani rather than a cyber guard.

Moreover, Guarnieri presents himself as an Italian hacker and a human rights activist. The e-mail of officials and employees of the Moroccan government (ending with gov.ma) are designed and protected by the National Defence procedures. It is likely that an email addressed by a hacker is blocked or marked as spam.

How is it possible that with such a serious matter at hand, including an accusation against a state, Amnesty was satisfied with throwing this bottle to the sea, sending a simple email and hoping (perhaps naively?) that it would reach its destination? It is very poorly considered if not plain irresponsible. In the management of this file, either Amnesty showed astounding amateurism, or it is acting in bad faith towards Morocco.

Not able to provide evidence, Amnesty has drawn itself into a political quagmire.

After the publication of Amnesty’s report and the media hype of Forbidden Stories, Moroccan authorities summoned Sektaoui, Amnesty’s executive in Morocco, to inform him of their surprise at the NGO’s allegations and that the Moroccan government demanded material evidence of its accusations.

The Moroccan government then published on July 2 an official statement requesting from Amnesty to publicly provide material evidence of its accusations. Othmani also informed Verhaar of the government’s position.

However, the answer came on July 3 from Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s regional director, who did not provide any material evidence but issued an unusually virulent press release, revealing the NGO’s bitterness towards the North African country.

In this statement, whose language is light years away from what you would expect from human rights defenders, Morayef denounced “an intensification of repression in Morocco.”

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East Regional Director, holds a report at a press conference, in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)
Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East Regional Director, holds a report at a press conference, in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)

She said that “a great number of human rights activists, independent journalists and protesters were currently imprisoned and the authorities benefit from COVID-19 pandemic during these last months to prosecute other critical voices.”

Morayef’s statement may have been a sign of Amnesty’s embarrassment because of the rising voices calling for evidence that Morocco has the “Pegasus” spyware.

Amnesty has put itself in an awkward position. Not only is it supposed to provide evidence against the Moroccan state, but also to the partners of Forbbiden Stories. All in all, Amnesty unloaded a damp squib to international media.

On July 9, Verhaar finally wrote to Othmani. According to some credible sources, she referred to the summoning of Amnesty’s representative in Morocco as well as the answer of the NGO’s regional office, but failed to address Morayef’s strong-worded statement on July 4.

Verhaar indicated that she was open to dialogue and to explaining Amnesty’s methodology to Moroccan officials.

But the Moroccan state, as explained by the prime minister in his declaration to MAP, is not asking for a course on the methodology carried out by Amnesty in its research, but is bluntly requiring evidence.

Morocco is open to dialogue with Amnesty International, but on the condition that this NGO quickly brings forth the material evidence of its accusations, which were used as the basis for a worldwide media campaign mounted against the North African kingdom.

Saad Guerraoui, PhD, is Deputy Editor-In-Chief of Middle East Online