Bahrain Loses State Immunity in Dissidents’ Spyware Lawsuit

In an unprecedented victory for activists in Bahrain, the High Court in London ruled that the Bahraini government cannot claim state immunity to block a lawsuit by two dissidents whose devices were allegedly infected by spyware. 

The case against Bahrain was brought by General Secretary of the Bahrain Freedom Movement Saeed al-Shehabi and activist and photographer Moosa Mohammed who accused the kingdom of turning their computers into surveillance machines using FinSpy. “I can now communicate with journalists without fearing that my devices would be hacked or worrying that my family or relatives would be at risk,” stated Mohammed after the ruling came out on February 8. 

The UK government’s decision came after a long process. The two activists suspected that their devices had been infected by malicious software in 2011, which was later confirmed, leading to the lift of Bahrain’s immunity in Britain, a country that is usually supportive of Bahraini authorities.

“This is a victory for activists persecuted by the Bahraini authorities for their peaceful opposition and the opinions they express through the media. We will continue fighting for justice. We will keep moving forward with the case until the Bahraini authorities are held accountable and forced to compensate for those affected,” Mohammed added.

When asked about measures to protect UK nationals and residents from malicious hacking by the Bahraini government, the Minister of State for Security, Thomas Tugendhat, gave a promising answer, reassuring activists. 

In his response, Minister Tugendhat affirmed that “the government is delivering a strategic program of work to prevent attacks reaching citizens and organizations at scale. This includes a range of interventions such as identifying and removing malicious websites and building a national data sharing capability to enable industry to block malicious websites and attacks.”

These measures could offer some protection to foreign dissidents, including the Bahraini Saeed Shehabi and Moosa Mohammed. Both were exiled and deprived of their nationalities, and the UK granted them citizenship after seeking asylum. 

Bahrain has constantly Spied on Activists.
In 2011, Bahraini activist Moosa Mohammed discovered that someone else had access to the Facebook Messenger app on his iPhone and was typing messages to his activist friends in Bahrain, prodding for personal information.

At the same time, information was leaked about hacking activists’ devices. Bahraini blogger and human rights activist Ali Abdulemam, who closely followed cases of spying on activists’ phones, told SMEX: “By monitoring the hacking of activists’ devices at home or abroad, it became clear that two devices had been hacked, so we notified the owners.”

At first, Abdulemam and his colleagues could not examine the case closely since the owners of the phones deleted all the data, fearing that it would be leaked. However, the second time, “we ran a random test on the activists’ devices and discovered that Moosa’s device was hacked; we handed him the technical evidence, and he used it in court,” Abdulemam explained.

The investigation revealed that Bahraini authorities had installed the FinSpy spyware on the devices of dissidents Saeed Shehabi and Moosa Mohammed. FinSpy is used to take control of laptops, access files, and monitor communications. The two dissidents had previously explained in an interview that this spyware also allows attackers to turn on a device’s microphones and cameras for live monitoring and location tracking.

The two Bahraini dissidents, who both live in Britain, added that their laptops were infected with spyware in 2011, which allowed the Bahraini authorities to monitor their work with political prisoners in Bahrain, and that they were seeking damages for “psychiatric harm.”

Meanwhile, Bahraini authorities denied hacking the laptops of Shehabi and Mohammed, claiming “they had provided no evidence of how their computers were allegedly infected with spyware.” After the ruling issued by British Judge Julian Knowles, who dismissed Bahrain’s request to claim state immunity, a Bahrain government spokesperson stated that “the Government is disappointed by the Court’s decision and intends to appeal.”

Recurrent Spying Campaigns
This is not the first time the Bahraini government has been accused of spying on dissidents. The phone of Ebtisam Al-Saegh, Bahraini activist and human rights defender, was also hacked in 2019. “As I was the first female human rights activist in Bahrain, my phone was hacked eight times, according to specialists at Front Line Defenders,” she told SMEX.

Spying operations increased in Bahrain with the spread of COVID-19. “The authorities found that there were more opportunities to conduct attacks with the widespread use of communications technology such as the internet, smartphones, and wireless internet devices in day-to-day life in health, education, legal, and other fields,” Zainab Al Khmees, head of the Monitoring and Follow-up Committee at the Bahrain Human Rights Society, told SMEX.

In its February 2022 report, Amnesty International documented how the kingdom continuously targeted activists through spying campaigns. “Bahraini authorities have intensified their crackdown on dissent in recent years, tightening their digital media monitoring, which was the only space left for an open discussion after the government outlawed legal opposition groups. This chilling breach of the right to privacy comes in a context of harassment against human rights defenders, journalists, opposition leaders, and lawyers,” explained Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, in a statement concerning the report.

Self-censorship and the lack of privacy and security are some of the main concerns that Al-Saegh expressed. “Hacking my phone is a major crime! I do not have enemies. I speak out against the violations committed by the government, and I advocate for human rights despite government attacks against activists,” she told SMEX.

Could this Court Decision Lead to Change?
Bahraini dissidents hope for a strict international stance that prevents Bahraini authorities from accessing spyware technology used to monitor, prosecute, and silence them. 

“The court’s decision is reassuring, as all activists, whether those in Bahrain or those that have fled to avoid prosecution by security forces, were living in fear.” 

Abdulemam hopes this decision will prevent the sale of spyware to the Bahraini government as a first step to end spying activities, “especially since the lawsuit we had filed against British company Gamma Group – which provided the Bahraini government with spyware – was unsuccessful.”

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Ragheb Malli

Communications Manager at EGovernment Research Center. Human rights activist and researcher.