The illegal surveillance of Catalans should worry all Europeans

There is overwhelming evidence that Spain is illegally surveilling peaceful Catalan actors across the EU’s borders.

Roger Torrent (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
The phone of Catalan parliament’s president Roger Torrent was targeted using spyware its makers say is only sold to governments to track criminals and 'terrorists'. [AP Photo/Manu Fernandez]

Earlier this month, a joint investigation by El Pais and The Guardian revealed that the mobile phone of the president of the Catalan regional parliament, Roger Torrent, and those of several other pro-independence politicians have been targeted with Pegasus – a spy programme developed by an Israeli company named NSO, which can only be purchased by governments and law enforcement agencies to fight crime and “terrorism”. 

While the investigation did not prove the Spanish government’s involvement in the apparent political espionage plot, a former NSO Group employee who spoke to Vice on condition of anonymity said Spain has been a client of the company since 2015. 

The revelation caused anger among Catalan politicians and activists, but it did not surprise anyone who is familiar with the Spanish state’s surveillance activities. Indeed, Madrid has long been accused of illegally spying on Catalan activists and politicians not only in the country, but throughout Europe. 

Last year, on August 11, the Swiss newspaper Blick reported that Spain has been spying on Catalans living in the country and monitoring their activities – as well as the activities of the Catalan representation in the country. The news that the Spanish secret service, the CNI, has been conducting illegal surveillance activities in the country angered both Catalan and Swiss politicians.

A month earlier, documents obtained by the Spanish daily El Diario had already revealed an extensive Spanish espionage scheme targeting the Catalan government employees working in diplomatic missions in the UK, Switzerland and Germany. 

After the scandal surfaced, British member of Parliament Hywel Williams told the House of Commons the Spanish government secretly surveilled the activities of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Catalonia (APPG) which he presides. During his address, members of Parliament in the background shouted “shame, shame” to protest Madrid’s alleged illegal activities. 

Around the same time, British press reported that Spain has also spied on the activities of Scottish members of Parliament and officials from the Scottish National Party in an attempt to prevent the Catalan government from “getting closer” to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. 

The allegations did not come as a shock to Catalan activists working in the UK who had long been accustomed to using encrypted communication methods and paying extra attention to new, unknown faces attending their meetings to prevent the Spanish state from spying on their activities.

Members of ANC-England, the UK branch of a pro-independence Catalan non-profit organisation, told me they have known about Spain’s espionage activities in the UK since last January. An ANC-England member who talked to me on condition of anonymity said while they do not know the extent of the surveillance operation directed at their organisation, they do know that a debate organised by the APPG at the British parliament and attended by members of the Catalan parliament and other Catalan activists has been spied on by Spanish agents. 

“We suspect this was not the only event to which Spanish embassy sent informants to report back,” they added. 

I also talked to political scientist Janne Riitakorpi, the leader of the well-known Catalan pro-sovereignty movement, the Foreign Friends of Catalonia, about the allegations. He told me the latest revelations about the extent of the Spanish espionage operation against Catalan activists and politicians “shows that Spanish authorities are desperate, and fearful of the growing international support for Catalonia”.

Foreign Friends of Catalonia as an association has not been the target of espionage so far,” he added, “however, myself and Finnish member of Parliament Mikko Karna were spied on by the Spanish secret service when we organised [former Catalan President Carles] Puigdemont’s visit to Finland in March 2018.”

After this visit, Puigdemont attempted to travel by car from Finland to Belgium, where he resides. But due to a European arrest warrant against him issued by Spain, the Catalan leader was arrested in Germany, near the Danish border. He was then forced to remain in the country and wait for a local court to decide on Spain’s extradition request, which was ultimately denied. 

Sources in CNI later told Spanish media outlets that the Spanish intelligence agency had used the geolocation service on the mobile phone of at least one of Puigdemont’s companions to monitor his movements during his visit to Finland, as well as fitting a tracking device to the car the group had been travelling in. According to these reports, twelve CNI agents were involved in the operation.

Spain’s attempts to monitor the movements and activities of Puigdemont in a foreign country, without the knowledge or consent of the relevant local authorities, is clearly illegal. But the Spanish intelligence appears not concerned about breaking international laws and regulations in their pursuit of Catalan politicians, diplomats and activists. 

The Catalan government’s delegate in Germany, Marie Kapretz, who is a German citizen, also claims the Spanish government spied on her inside Germany. Kapretz told me Spanish authorities continued to track her activities in Germany from November 2017 to July 2018, even though at the time she was not even carrying out any duties as delegate due to the suspension of Catalonia’s home rule. 

She filed a criminal complaint with the country’s federal prosecutor against Spanish authorities under article 99 of Germany’s criminal code, which forbids foreign secret services from carrying out “an intelligence action against the Federal Republic of Germany.” 

In August 2019, the German prosecutor’s office accepted the case and said it would begin investigating the actions of then Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell. In December 2019, just a few months after the start of the German investigation, however, Borrell became the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. 

Borrell’s appointment as EU’s top diplomat, while an investigation into his activities as Spain’s foreign minister was still continuing, was indicative of Europe’s indifference to the Spanish state’s persecution of Catalan politicians and activists, as well as its reluctance to hold Madrid to account for its activities against the laws of the union.

After witnessing the violence the Spanish state unleashed on pro-independence activists and politicians in many Catalan cities in the aftermath of the 2017 independence referendum, most Catalans expected an increase in Madrid’s repressive and authoritarian measures aimed at silencing the peaceful movement for Catalan independence.

This is why activists in Spain and across Europe were not surprised to hear the Spanish state had succumbed to illegal espionage to hinder their campaigning efforts. They, however, were not prepared for the absolute silence of the majority of European institutions before Spain’s blatantly illegal activities. 

Every Catalan activist I talked to told me while they are disheartened by Madrid’s apparent efforts to control and silence them, they are not willing to give up on their dream of independence. But their perseverance and resolve should not prevent us from acknowledging the gravity of the situation.

There is overwhelming evidence that a European state is illegally surveilling peaceful political actors across the union’s borders. Europe’s silence in the face of police violence targeted at Catalan protesters and the jailing of Catalan leaders for the sole crime of trying to act on the Catalan people’s will, already demonstrated the shaky foundations of the EU’s democratic principles. If it fails to investigate the shocking revelations that came out of the Guardian/El Pais investigation, it will be sending the message to not only Catalans but all Europeans that there is no one to protect them from the oppressive practices of their governments.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.