Ricard López, 17 March 2023
The report on ‘Catalangate’ by José Javier Olivas, presented in the European Parliament, dismantles the CitizenLab study on the alleged spying with Pegasus on 65 secessionist leaders / CG PHOTOMOUNTING
A report presented in the European Parliament exposes the lack of rigour, conflicts of interest and bias in the CitizenLab study, and raises the question of whether it is part of a secessionist plan to overturn courts’ rulings
The links between prominent Catalan secessionist leaders and emissaries from Russia during the ‘procés’ are once again on the table in the European Parliament. This time, thanks to the presentation on 9 March of “El caso Pegasus, una revisión crítica del informe Catalangate de CitizenLab» (The Pegasus Case, a critical review of CitizenLab’s Catalangate report). The 236-page document, written by José Javier Olivas, professor of Political Science and Administration at the UNED, exposes numerous shortcomings that question the credibility of the controversial study by the University of Toronto (UoT) on the alleged spying with the Pegasus and Candiru programmes on 65 politicians and pro-independence leaders, which the latter are using to try to discredit Spain and its democratic institutions.
Professor Olivas’s research highlights the lack of methodological rigour, neutrality and transparency of the controversial CitizenLab study, as well as its contradictions and striking conflicts of interest. Among them, the fact that one of its eight authors is a Catalan secessionist activist, Elies Campo, who in turn is one of the alleged spied on. Added to this is the UoT’s steadfast refusal to allow an external analysis of its report by independent professionals, something demanded by more than a hundred academics, reserarchers and professionals who question its reliability.
Olivas also attributes flaws to the sampling chosen by CitizenLab, given that “apparently only the devices of pro-independence politicians and activists were analysed”. This in itself is suspicious, as is CitizenLab’s “strong political bias” in pointing to the Spanish government as the alleged perpetrator of “illegal espionage”, despite the lack of “sufficient evidence to support these accusations”. In this regard, it should be recalled that the Spanish National Intelligence Centre acknowledged the surveillance, fully legal and under judicial autorisation, of 18 leaders of the procés, a figure that is far from the 65 claimed by the Canadian study.
Aid to those being investigated by the justice system
The report notes that during the CitizenLab investigation “participants were warned that they were likely to be spied on without taking into account that this warning could interfere with ongoing judicial investigations” into them. “Many participants were being legally monitored by the Spanish security services when they contacted them and explained how to avoid surveillance. Others were awaiting trial, and some were even serving prison sentences,” he adds.
Moreover, Olivas recalls that several of those allegedly affected “were at the time and are still under investigation for their known links to Russian intelligence services, corruption or the creation of Tsunami Democràtic, the illegal blockchain-based platform aimed at bringing down Spanish security forces and used to coordinate violent riots and blockades of roads, train stations and airports”.
CitizenLab overlooks relations with Russia….
On this point, “The Pegasus Case, a critical review of CitizenLab’s Catalangate report” emphasises that “surprisingly” the CitizenLab study “completely omits the well-documented links with Russia and Russian attempts to destabilise Spain and the EU by supporting Catalan secessionists”; and that it does not take into account “any of the other plausible alternative hypotheses. It is surprising that the possibility of legally sanctioned surveillance, false positives or espionage by the secret services of Russia or Western countries”.
The Russian plot of the ‘procés’ is dealt with, in fact, in 38 of the 236 pages of the report that refutes the credibility of Catalangate. In them, Olivas finds it “strange that CitizenLab, having written about Russian cyberespionage actions in the West in 2017, and aware of the connections between Russia and secessionist leaders that had been made public in several media, did not even consider that Russia might have had an interest in spying on the Catalan leaders with whom it was dealing, or even supporting them technically in case they might be interested in presenting Spain as a repressive country that spies on its citizens. It is difficult to discern why CitizenLab ruled out Russian involvement, or that of any other Western secret service concerned about its attempts to destabilise EU member states. The report does not justify the omission of these hypotheses”.
In this sense, “The Pegasus Case, a critical review of CitizenLab’s Catalangate report” recalls the journalistic investigations uncovered by OCCR, according to which “a representativo of Putin met with the President of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont, the day before Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2017. He was promised $500 billion and 10.000 soldiers if they pledged to turn Catalonia into a cryptocurrency haven. This was apparently part of a long-term strategy to erode the stability of the euro”. And also that “several of the participants in the CitizenLab report worked on promoting the blockchain technology Ethereum (cryptocurrency)”. Specifically, Elies Campo and “Mr Miquel, Mr Baylina, Mr Escrich, Mr Matamala, Mr Ganyet and Mr Vives”.
… And it presents as victims those investigated because of ‘Tsunami Democratic’.
In terms of names, Olivas highlights the contacts with Russian emissaries of secessionist leaders about whom CitizenLab tried to find out if they were spied on, such as the former MCP of Junts per Catalunya Elsa Artadi, the lawyer Gonzalo Boye and the head of the Office of the fugitive Puigdemont, Josep Lluís Alay – who travelled to Moscow in 2019 -. Something that the Canadian body also did with others investigated by the justice system for the alleged diversion of public funds to finance Tsunami Democràtic, as is the case of Alay himself, Xavier Vendrell and David Madí, arrested on 28 October 2020 along with 18 other suspects in this matter. Vendrell and Madí are remembered, for example, for their presence in a conversation with Víctor Terradellas – intercepted by the police – in which Madí and this former foreign secretary of Convergència and friend of Puigdemont “talk about Russia’s interest in cryptocurrencies”.
In one of these now famous audios, moreover, “there are also explicit references to the 10,000 Russian soldiers” and the need for “100 deaths to justify the Russian involvement. Mr. Terradellas alleges that, if they gathered a million people in Plaça Sant Jaume, the Spanish security forces would have to kill people to get in”. Terradellas, in fact, confirmed in court last year such conversations about possible civilian casualties and the fact that, according to him, Puigdemont was aware of the Kremlin emissaries’ offers.
The report submitted to Parliament therefore insists on this other hypothesis: “Did no CitizenLab body consider that the US, British or other Western secret services might be interested in spying on Catalan activists who could collaborate with the Russian secret services to destabilise the EU?
The timing of the CitizenLab report also raises suspicions, as it “seems to have been chosen to mitigate the negative impact on the secessionist movement of some revelations regarding its connection with Russia, misappropriation of public funds and organisation of illegal activities, in 2018 and 2019, to challenge Spanish control of Catalonia.”
“Coincidentally, the latest rounds of analysis of the CatalanGate report were carried out by CitizenLab shortly after several incriminating pieces of evidence emerged from judicial investigations concerning relations between secessionist leaders and Moscow, and the approval in the European Parliament of a proposal to investigate links between Catalan secessionism and Russia in March 2022,” the text adds.
A strategy to invalidate the ‘procés’ trials?
As a result of all this, another section of the report presented in the European Parliament raises another reasonable question: is Catalan secessionism using the alleged spying with Pegasus as a tool to invalidate the trials of the ‘procés’? The report warns that political leaders, parties and organisations are taking advantage of CitizenLab’s controversial publication: “Since then, a key argument expressed in interviews with the media was that the alleged spying had affected several lawyers defending secessionist leaders in court. This would be a violation of the defendants’ rights, and their intention was to seek the annulment of their trials and sentences.
Two of these lawyers, according to CitizenLab, are Gonzalo Boye -lawyer, among others, of Carles Puigdemont- and Andreu Van den Eynde -Oriol Junqueras’ lawyer-. In the case of the latter, however, Olivas denounces a striking manoeuvre: the fact that CitizenLab changed the date of one of the alleged raids on his mobile phone a posteriori, bringing it forward one month in time – from 14 June to 14 May 2020 -, thus making it coincide with a video call he had with other lawyers to discuss the legal strategy of the imprisoned politicians. “Therefore, the new ‘updated’ infection date could be used by Mr. Van Den Eynde as an argument to try to challenge the court ruling in these trials,” Olivas said.
The UNED professor presented his thesis last week in a room in the European Parliament together with Jordi Cañas, an MEP for Ciudadanos (Cs), something he was unable to do on 29 November despite having been initially invited to participate in the European Parliament’s Pegasus enquiry committee. His name was excluded at the last minute from the hearing, after the director of CitizenLab, Ronald Deibert, threatened that his organisation would not intervene in the hearing if Olivas was invited. The professor has now been able to make amends by publicly exposing the report that questions the credibility of Catalangate (see below).
Catalangate: The Pegasus spyware scandal – A critical review -Olivas Osuna JJ 2023.pdf
The committee looking into Russian interference to destabilise Europe will meet again soon. Cs MEP Maite Pagazaurtundua has asked the European Centre of Excellence for Combating Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE) to analyse the specific case of Catalonia.