Jamal Khashoggi’s wife to sue NSO Group over Pegasus spyware

The wife of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is preparing a lawsuit in the United States against spyware maker NSO Group, claiming she was the target of the Israeli firm’s Pegasus software.

Hanan Elatr, 52, is also planning to sue the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for their involvement in the alleged attempts to install the software on his cellphone.

She is receiving support for her attempts to gather evidence for the cases of Agnès Callamard, the former UN official who investigated the murder in her role as special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions.

Elatr, who is in the United States where she has requested political asylum, is seeking to recover two cell phones, an iPad and a laptop computer belonging to her husband which are believed to be in the possession of the Turkish authorities to help her 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.

Washington Post columnist Khashoggi was killed and dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

US intelligence agencies have concluded that the killing was approved by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, which he denied, calling it a “heinous crime” and a “mistake…committed by officials working for the Saudi government. The Saudi government prosecuted 11 men for carrying out the murder and sentenced five of them to death, although the death sentences were later overturned.

Last year, evidence emerged suggesting that an NSO client had 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 revealed that she had received four text messages containing malicious links connected to Pegasus, although successful installation was not proven by analysis.

Activity on Elatr’s confiscated phone during a period she was in the custody of UAE intelligence after being arrested at Dubai airport in April 2018 further suggests an attempt was made to install the software at this time.

NSO rejected the claims, previously reported by The Guardian and The Washington Post. “Our technology was in no way associated with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” the company said. “We can confirm that our technology has not been used to eavesdrop, monitor, track, or collect any information about him or his family members mentioned in your application.”

The company did not respond to a request for comment on the potential lawsuits.

Elatr said she was determined to use the US courts to get full information on who was potentially spying on her husband and loved ones in the run-up to his murder.

As she builds her legal case, Elatr searches for cellphones and other devices belonging to her husband and Istanbul at the time of his death, which she says are held by Turkish authorities.

An attempt by Randa Fahmy, Elatr’s legal adviser, to secure devices from the Turkish embassy in Washington failed last year, with officials insisting she should make a legal claim in Turkey.

However, pressure is being exerted on the White House to intervene following the decision of a Turkish court to suspend the trial in absentia of 26 Saudis accused of the murder, before he was transferred to Saudi Arabia.

Callamard said in a statement that she had been prevented in the past from retrieving the phones.

She said: “As the UN Special Rapporteur investigating the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi state, I knew from the first days that the Turkish authorities had Jamal’s phones and computer in the part of their investigation.

“From the start of my investigation, during my interviews with the prosecutor, I asked if they had investigated whether the phones or computers had been hacked but I never received an answer except that it was ‘In progress’.

“When I last met with the prosecutor, I suggested that perhaps other experts, such as within the FBI, should be brought in given the difficulty in tracing and identifying spyware such as Pegasus. But they refused or resisted the proposal.

“I hoped that during the trial in Turkey, the prosecutor would reveal the information they had collected on Jamal’s phones or computer. But as we know, unfortunately this did not happen and the trial in Turkey has now come to an abrupt end. Without justice served.

Callamard, who is now Secretary General of Amnesty International, added: “I have been informed of Hanan Elatr Khashoggi’s efforts to secure these items from the Turkish authorities. I certainly support such efforts.

“The Turkish government has made it clear that it has no intention of continuing the investigation and the trial. He should therefore hand over any evidence still in his hands to those who are truly and genuinely determined to reveal the truth about Jamal’s murder.

“Determining if his phones had been hacked, if he was under digital surveillance, identifying spyware – these are all crucial elements both in telling the truth and in understanding and preventing the targeting of dissidents.”

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