Saudi hunt for opponents went way beyond Khashoggi: Report

Saudi dissident satirist Ghanem Almasarir poses for a photograph in front of a protest outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in west London on October 24, 2018, calling for justice for Jamal Khashoggi. (AFP photo)

A new report by a major American magazine says Saudi Arabia had been hunting and hitting critics of the regime on a massive scale long before it ordered the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul last month.

The Forbes said in an exclusive report published on its website that Saudi Arabian government had been using extensive technology tools to harass the dissidents living abroad or spy on them before Khashoggi's death on October 2, an incident which exposed Riyadh's zero tolerance for the dissent and even those living in exile. 

The report specifically studied records of such cyber espionage on Ghanem Almasarir, an anti-Saudi satirist based in London who is well known for his way of mocking the extravagant lifestyle of the Saudi royal family.

Almasarir told Forbes that his phone has been frequently tampered with through Pegasus, a software pack designed by a company in the Israeli-occupied Palestine.

The report said that the malware, a creation of Israeli surveillance dealer called NSO Group, a highly secretive entity valued at $1 billion, has been used by Riyadh to spy on many dissidents across the world, including political activist Yahya Assiri, also based in the United Kingdom, an employee working on Saudi-related issues for Amnesty International, also UK-based, and activist Omar Abdulaziz from Quebec, Canada.

All those people have reported attacks to their mobile phones through Pegasus, saying the malware has sought to siphon personal and sensitive information from the devices so that Saudi intelligence services could track their movements and activities.

Danna Ingleton, the deputy program director for the technology division of Amnesty International, said governments like Saudi Arabia were using national security as an excuse to silence the activists.

“We have example, after example, after example of this software (Pegasus) being used to harass and threaten activists around the world,” said Ingleton.

Almasarir believes he was a special target of the Saudi cyber attacks, as he was very close to Khashoggi, a slain journalist whose brutal assassination sparked a massive outrage over Riyadh’s way of dealing with the dissent and drew fresh global attention to the regime’s widespread human rights abuses. The comedian claims that Saudis had almost certainly snooped on his conversations with Khashoggi in the lead up to his assassination.

Almasarir came to fresh spotlight in September when people, apparently loyal to the Saudi government, physically attacked him in broad daylight in London. One witness to the incident told the BBC later that when he warned the attacker that you can’t behave like this here in London, he responded that he did not care, because Britain and its Queen were Saudi Arabia’s slave.

Almasarir has become more distressed with Saudi harassment after the death of Khashoggi, as his iPhone continues to receive messages that seem to contain threats from the Saudi government.  

“They want to torture you emotionally, mentally ... They are experts in doing that,” says Almasarir.

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