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Nefarious use of Pegasus spyware exposes governments

Published Aug 6, 2021


By Shannon Ebrahim, Group Foreign Editor

The extensive use of Pegasus spyware by governments to spy on other heads of state has sent shockwaves round the world, but it has also lifted a lid on what governments like Rwanda are doing covertly.

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While Rwanda has denied using Pegasus spyware, the Pegasus Project - a consortium of international media and NGOs - investigated how Pegasus spyware of the Israeli company NSO Group was abused by governments to spy on their perceived enemies.

Pegasus spyware allows the client to record phone calls, read texts and emails, access photographs and passwords, and secretly activate microphones and cameras to make audio and video recordings.

According to The Chronicles, an investigative reporting site in Rwanda, the Rwandan government had identified more than 3 500 phone numbers as targets of such spying, including activists, journalists, exiles, foreign politicians, and diplomats. The site has published a sampling of who the 3 500 phone numbers belong to.

According to The Guardian newspaper, which was part of the Pegasus investigation project, President Cyril Ramaphosa's personal mobile phone seemed to have been selected by Rwanda in 2019.

Given the existence of Rwandan dissidents on South African soil, the use of spyware against our President is hardly surprising, but also outrageous. It has been suggested Kagame may have been seeking more leverage in pursuit of other regime defectors in South Africa.

Relations between Rwanda and South Africa broke down in 2013, when exiled former Rwandan Intelligence Chief Patrick Karegeya, a critic of President Kagame, was assassinated on 31 December in the Michelangelo hotel in Johannesburg. Karegeya had been the Rwandan external spy chief, and a close friend of Kagame, but he fell out with Kagame in 2006, and was imprisoned twice and stripped of his military rank after he had criticised Kagame’s regime.

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Evidence cited by the magistrate at the 2019 inquest into Karegeya’s death, stated that the South African Director of Public Prosecutions believed that “close links exist between the suspects and the current Rwandan government.”

There have also been three or four assassination attempts in Johannesburg on the life of Kagame’s former military chief of staff General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who had also fallen out with Kagame. Both Karegeya and Nyamwasa helped found the Rwandan opposition party the Rwandan National Congress (RNC).

Those who had tried to assassinate Nyamwasa in 2010 were positively identified and linked to the government of Rwanda by the South African courts. On the list of those allegedly targeted by Rwanda using Pegasus spyware, Nyamwasa’s brother in-law Frank Ntwali, who is exiled in South Africa, is included, as well as a number of other Rwandan exiles based in South Africa.

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In June 2019 was the death of another Rwandan dissident Camir Nkurunziza under mysterious circumstances, who had been Kagame’s bodyguard, but later became one of his critics. Then five months ago, Seif Bamporiki, who was the Chairperson of the RNC, was assassinated in Gugulethu in Cape Town.

According to the Pegasus Project, one of the other phone numbers Rwanda targeted through the Pegasus spyware was that of Carine Kanimba, the daughter of the hero in the movie Hotel Rwanda - Paul Rusesabagina.

He was the former manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, who saved the lives of an estimated 1,200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the 1994 genocide, by harbouring them in the hotel. Rusesabagina had also fallen out with Kagame in 1996, and went into exile in the US and formed an opposition party.

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Last year he was lured back to Rwanda under the impression he was flying to Burundi, and he is now in a sham trial in Kigali for “terrrorism, murder, and financing rebellion.” In an interview with CNN’s Richard Quest, Kagame had admitted that Rusesabagina was “abducted from Dubai, having been lured by his friend directed by the government of Rwanda.”

This is not the only time Kagame has boasted about extraordinary renditions.

Dr David Himbara, the former private secretary and economic adviser to Kagame for six years, who fell out with Kagame and is now exiled in Canada, is also targeted on the Pegasus spy list.

Himbara says during the Rwandan elections of 2010, the regime became increasingly paranoid and violent, and after criticising Kagame in private, he was fired and later hunted by the regime. Others on the Pegasus list include the current Prime Minister of Burundi and the Ugandan external intelligence chief.

Whether there are consequences for Rwanda’s violations of international law and violations of the privacy of foreign leaders, politicians and dissidents, remains to be seen. But the time for giving Rwanda a free pass must surely come to an end.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media Group Foreign Editor.

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