Saudi Arabia hacked the phone of the head of the UN-mandated Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) panel investigating possible war crimes committed by the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen. To carry out this hacking, Saudi Arabia used the Israeli NSO group’s infamous Pegasus software. The Saudis targeted Kamel Jendoubi, chairman of the now disbanded GEE, days before the panel released a critical report on war crimes in Yemen. The revelation came after forensic analysis by experts from University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and Amnesty International. Jendoubi’s phone number appeared on a list of 50,000 phone numbers identified as targets of NSO group clients who used the Pegasus software for spying.
According to news reports, Saudi Arabia was NSO’s client for years before the company ended its association over reported abuse of their surveillance software, especially in the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
In recent months, NSO and its Pegasus software have come under intense international condemnation and scrutiny for its use by authoritarian and oppressive governments around the world to illegally spy on opposition political figures, journalists, human rights activists, and others. Several countries also used Pegasus to illegally spy on rival foreign governments and in some cases even allies. Following the revelations about Pegasus in an investigation by British daily The Guardian, Amnesty, and other news outlets led by French non-profit media group Forbidden Stories, several countries launched investigations into the spying claims.
Jendoubi, a prominent Tunisian human rights activist, has headed and been part of numerous human rights organizations. He played an important role in the Tunisian revolution against the authoritarian regime of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. He also served in one of the democratically-elected Tunisian governments after Ali’s ouster.
The damning report compiled by GEE reveals human rights violations and war crimes being committed by all sides in Yemen. It concluded that the Saudi-led coalition had committed “serious violations of international humanitarian law” which could lead to “criminal responsibility for war crimes.” This reportedly led to fear among members of the Saudi-led military coalition of possible international legal prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), sanctions, and review of the military, intelligence and diplomatic support western countries have so far extended to the coalition.
Jendoubi was quoted by news outlets as saying that the targeting of his phone using Pegasus was an act of a “rogue state” that did not care about “commitments and minimum international rules.” He stated that “there are no other words. As international investigators, we are supposed to be at least protected. But I am not at all surprised. I’ve been apprehensive about this since 2019. We knew that we [the panel] could be potentially targeted since the publication of our 2018 report. That report had created a shock in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They did not expect such findings.”
Criticizing Saudi Arabia, Jendoubi said, “They used all their propaganda, their media … to defame us and discredit our work. Everything you would expect from them. Until the 2021 vote that ended our mission.” He was referring to the vote in the United Nations Human Rights Council this October in which the majority of member countries voted against the resolution to extend the panel’s mandate to continue with its war crimes investigation. The Guardian reported in December that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had resorted to a campaign of “incentives” and “threats” against several member countries to coerce them into voting down the resolution.
Jendoubi also said that he believes his work was most likely not compromised as he had used another device to conduct his investigation.
The civil war in Yemen since 2015 followed by the military intervention by the Saudi-led coalition has so far resulted in the deaths of over 377,000 Yemenis due war, famine and disease. 14 million people, almost half of the Yemeni population, have been internally displaced. 24 million Yemenis, roughly 80% of the population, are forced to rely on international humanitarian aid for food, medicines and their daily survival. 14 million are at grave risk of starvation.
The Saudi-led coalition has been repeatedly criticized by human rights groups and activists for its indiscriminate military operations in Yemen which have disproportionately targeted densely populated civilian areas and buildings, such as schools, hospitals and mosques, leading to massive civilian casualties.There have been calls to end the military, intelligence and diplomatic support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, especially by its major allies including the US, UK, France, and Canada, among others.