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Rwanda believed to have used NSO spyware against Belgian journalist, wife

Belgium’s military intelligence reportedly concludes that Peter Verlinden and Marie Bamutese were targeted by Israeli-developed Pegasus software

In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, a woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, a woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Belgium’s military intelligence service has concluded that a Belgian journalist and his wife were targeted by spyware built by the Israeli NSO Group, likely at the behest of the Rwandan government, according to reports in Belgian media.

Le Soir and Knack, both part of the global media consortium that has published claims of widespread use of NSO’s Pegasus software, reported on Friday that Belgium’s General Intelligence and Security Service believes the phones of Peter Verlinden and Marie Bamutese were hacked using NSO technology.

In a bombshell investigation released in July, NSO was accused of selling the spyware to the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates, which used it to hack into the phones of dissidents, journalists, and human rights activists.

Following the revelations, Belgium’s military intelligence drew up a list of probable victims and checked their phones for signs of a cyber attack.

“As the full investigations are still ongoing, our service assesses likely that both Peter Verlinden and Marie Bamutese’s devices have been targeted by the Pegasus software. Given the timing of the intrusion and the nature of the individuals targeted, the SGRS assesses that such an intrusion was very likely initiated by Rwanda,” said a four-page General Intelligence and Security Service document accessed by Knack and Le Soir.

Pegasus spyware can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data, and is at the center of a storm after a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide was leaked to human rights groups.

Verlinden is thought to have been targeted by Rwanda due to his long career as a journalist specializing in Central Africa.

“Given my relationship with the Rwandan regime, it didn’t really surprise us that Rwanda is trying to find out what my wife and I do. In recent years, we have come under fire from internet trolls on social media. In 2018, we filed a complaint for defamation. In other words: we are used to the Rwandan regime,” Verlinden told the Pegasus Project in response to the reports.

Verlinden worked for Belgium’s public broadcaster VRT for 32 years till 2019. Bamutese is a former Rwandan refugee with Belgian nationality.

NSO has insisted that its software was intended for use only in fighting terrorism and other crimes, and the reported targeting list was not related to the company.

Last week, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid played down criticism of Israel’s regulation of NSO Group but vowed to step up efforts to ensure the company’s controversial spyware doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

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