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Ghana jails 3 ex-government officials for spyware deal with Israel’s NSO Group

Reported ruling by high court in Accra is apparently the first time officials overseas have been imprisoned for dealing with controversial Israeli surveillance firm

An Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed the NSO Group intelligence firm, August 28, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP/File)
An Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed the NSO Group intelligence firm, August 28, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP/File)

A court in Ghana on Tuesday sentenced three former senior government officials to jail terms for purchasing spyware products from the controversial Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group, local media reported.

Former national security coordinator Salifu Osman and telecommunications authority director-general William Tetteh Tevie have each been sentenced to five years in prison. Telecommunications authority former board chairman Eugene Baffoe-Bonnie was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment because he made $200,000 from the deal with NSO, Ghana Business News and other Ghanaian websites reported.

The high court in Accra said the officials had caused significant financial loss to the state due to their $4 million purchase of NSO Group’s signature Pegasus spyware, the reports said.

It ordered the country’s attorney general to seize assets worth an estimated $3 million from those who were convicted.

The court decision appears to represent the first time in the world that a government official has been jailed for doing business with NSO.

The Ghana national flag, center, flies in front of the Supreme Court building in the city of Accra, Ghana, October 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Christian Thompson)

Two other defendants in the case, including NSO’s local representative George Derick Oppong, were acquitted by the court.

NSO Group’s flagship spyware, Pegasus, allows agents to effectively take control of a phone, surreptitiously controlling its cameras and microphones from remote servers and vacuuming up personal data and geolocations.

NSO Group has previously claimed that it only licenses its software to governments for “fighting crime and terror” and that it investigates credible allegations of misuse, but activists argue the technology has been instead used for human rights abuses.

Three of NSO Group’s founders — Omri Lavie, Shalev Hulio and Isaac Zack — invest their personal money through a firm known as the Founders’ Group that has invested in the largely fraudulent binary options industry, The Times of Israel reported last month.

“Given the documented use of NSO Group technology against journalists, any intention to acquire Pegasus spyware or similar surveillance systems is cause for concern,” Angela Quintal, the Africa coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told hana Business News last year.

“Ghanaian authorities’ failure to adequately prioritize press freedom and ensure accountability for attacks against journalists make these concerns all the more justified,” she added.

Simona Weinglass contributed to this report.

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