BARCELONA (Reuters) -Catalonia's regional leader will ask police to investigate alleged spying by the Spanish government, he said on Tuesday, after a rights group found that his phone and those of dozens more pro-independence leaders were infected with spy software.
On Monday, Canada's Citizen Lab group said that in the wake of a failed independence bid in 2017, more than 60 people linked to the Catalan separatist movement, including current leader Pere Aragones and several of his predecessors, had been targets of "Pegasus" spyware made by Israel's NSO Group.
"A democratic state does not spy on its citizens...a democratic state does not listen in on the private conversations of its political opponents," Aragones told a news conference.
He said the allegations had severely damaged relations with central authorities in Madrid and "normal political relations cannot be restored until they take responsibility".
The government denied illegally spying on the Catalan independence leaders but was mum on whether it had undertaken any court-approved electronic surveillance.
"The government has nothing to hide," spokesperson Isabel Rodriguez said, adding that it would cooperate fully with any investigation.
Citizen Lab said it could not directly attribute the spying operations but that circumstantial evidence pointed to Spanish authorities.
Asked if Spain had ever engaged in legally-sanctioned electronic surveillance of Catalan leaders or if Madrid had access to Pegasus, which can be used to remotely break into iPhones, Rodriguez said she could not answer questions on such matters of national security that are classified.
Citizen Lab is known as one of the leading research groups on mercenary spyware within the cybersecurity industry.
It also revealed this week that it had warned British officials that electronic devices connected to government networks, including in the prime minister's office and foreign ministry, appeared to be targeted with Pegasus.
The group began its Spanish inquiry in 2020 after researchers working with Facebook's instant message service WhatsApp warned several Catalan lawmakers that their phones had been hacked. A Barcelona court then opened an investigation after two lawmakers filed a lawsuit against the government.
El Pais newspaper reported on Wednesday that the investigation had been stalled for over a year as the court was awaiting a response from the Israeli government.
(Reporting by Emma Pinedo, Inti Landauro and Joan Faus; Writing by Nathan Allen; editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean)