A parliamentary EU committee investigated political persecution in Hungary using the “Pegasus” spyware. The government suspected a left-wing conspiracy and was apparently poorly informed about it.
The rift between the EU and Hungary is deepening. On Monday, Justice Minister Judit Varga insulted an EU parliamentary delegation on Facebook as a “Brussels farce”. The background to the rumbling is a trip by the committee of inquiry into the “Pegasus” spy software. Several EU states, including Hungary, use it for political persecution. The mobile phone of the target person is infected with a so-called trojan, and its data and location are transmitted to the surveillance authorities. It is also possible to activate the camera and microphone remotely.
The misuse of “Pegasus” or comparable spy software violates the European Convention on Human Rights and undermines principles of the rule of law to which EU members have bound themselves in treaties. That is why the EU Parliament set up a committee of inquiry called “PEGA” a year ago. Greece, Poland and Spain are also the focus of its investigations.
On Monday, the committee left for Hungary with a nine-member delegation for a two-day visit. Meetings were held with parliamentarians, data protection authorities and stakeholders, as well as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and other non-governmental organisations. The MPs had also requested meetings with state authorities, but to no avail.
The Minister of Justice garnished her cancellation with insults via Facebook. Varga called the delegation’s trip a “Soros-financed performance of the European left”. This defames the Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, whom the government has turned into a hate figure. Obviously, the minister was badly briefed on the PEGA’s trip to Budapest: Because due to the distribution key for delegation trips, no left-wing politicians were allowed along this time.
A study commissioned by MEPs suspects that more than 300 people in Hungary have been targeted with “Pegasus”, including investigative journalists, lawyers, businessmen and politicians. The state had not concluded the contract worth around €6 million directly with the Israeli manufacturer NSO, but with an intermediary. This company is said to belong, among others, to a former intelligence officer with connections to politicians and the Interior Ministry. According to the report, another owner is a former state secretary and close friend of the current interior minister, Sándor Pintér.
“Everything indicates that spyware has been grossly abused in Hungary,” PEGA Chair Jeroen Lenaers stated after the trip. People had been spied on “with the objective to gain even more political and financial control over public sphere and media market”. The situation in Hungary is among the worst in the EU, the conservative politician said. The rapporteur responsible, Sophie In ‘t Veld, criticised the alleged lack of independent government oversight bodies. Therefore, spying during the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán could not be controlled, the liberal explained at a press conference.
The governments in the EU that are accused of misusing the spying software justify its use, among other things, with the protection of “national security”. This usually means the work of the secret services, which the EU has no mandate to control.
The French MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, however, does not want to accept this. If people are persecuted without having committed a crime or without this being expected, this is in any case a violation of human rights, says the Green politician in response to a question from “nd”. Delbos-Corfield is familiar with Hungary and has, among other things, published a report on Hungary’s “serious violation of the values on which the Union is founded”.
However, she does not think that the Hungarian government is out of line in its unwillingness to cooperate with PEGA. According to Delbos-Corfield, the Polish government did not want to receive the committee on its trip to Warsaw either, and the same applied to Israel, where, among other things, the export controls for the spy software were to be investigated. What makes Hungary special, however, is the complete absence of protective measures or possibilities for the victims of state espionage to find out about it at all. Even the parliament does nothing about this.
Published in German in „nd“.
Image: Judit Varga at a Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting 2021 (Council of the EU).