Pegasus case: HCLU takes coordinated domestic and foreign legal action

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) is taking legal action on behalf of six of its clients before the Hungarian authorities, the European Commission, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and in Israel. The organisation aims to expose the practice of unlawful secret surveillance, to have international fora declare that the Hungarian regulation of secret information gathering violates fundamental rights and to prevent politically motivated abuses.

The HCLU has long warned that the secret services have essentially unlimited powers of surveillance in Hungary: instead of an independent body, a minister authorises the collection of information and decides whether surveillance is lawful. There is no external control at the later stages of surveillance or after it has ended, and targeted individuals have no means to know if their data has been unlawfully collected and therefore have no access to legal remedies either.

The Pegasus case has shown that this is not a theoretical problem, but that violations do in fact take place, of which the public only found out through the press. Traces of the Pegasus spyware, which can only be bought by states, were found on the phones of several Hungarian targets, who obviously do not pose any risk to national security, but who have been a source of annoyance to the government.

The HCLU is using all possible legal means to enforce the rights of those illegally monitored and is taking the case of secret surveillance regulation that violates fundamental rights before Hungarian and international bodies. On behalf of journalists Brigitta Csikász, Dávid Dercsényi, Dániel Németh and Szabolcs Panyi, as well as student activist Adrien Beauduin and a sixth person who requested anonymity, the organisation is first pursuing the legal remedies offered by the National Security Act. It has lodged complaints with the ministers overseeing the secret services and will initiate an investigation by the National Security Committee of Parliament and the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights. Besides these, the HCLU has lodged so-called subject access requests with the secret services to gain information on possible data processing and will take legal action before the courts and the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, depending on the answers.

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As the abuses have several international implications - the spyware was produced by an Israeli company and an EU citizen living in Hungary was also targeted - the HCLU is also launching proceedings at the international level. It is initiating an investigation by the Israeli Attorney General in the cases of Szabolcs Panyi, Adrien Beauduin and a third client who was also found to have been surveilled. In this procedure the organisation is cooperating with Eitay Mack, an independent lawyer fighting against Israeli arms exports to autocracies. The aim of the investigation is to find out how the cyberweapon could have been authorised for export from Israel to a country that does not properly regulate secret surveillance, based on international rule of law reports and rulings of the ECtHR.

According to the HCLU, the surveillance of Belgian student activist Adrien Beauduin, who was studying in Hungary at the time of his surveillance, is a violation of EU law, namely the right to free movement of persons and workers. The lack of oversight mechanisms concerning secret services in Hungary in comparison to other EU countries, may discourage EU citizens from staying in Hungary, which is a breach of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The organisation has therefore filed a complaint with the European Commission.

Judging from the cases that have surfaced in the press so far, the surveillance is politically motivated. For years, a recurring element of government communication has been to portray those who criticise the government's actions as foreign agents or a threat to national security. The HCLU, together with human rights lawyer Balázs Tóth, is therefore also launching a multitude of lawsuits before the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of journalists and members of CSOs stigmatised by the government, as they are ostensibly highly exposed to surveillance.

"The use of the secret services to serve those in power rather than the nation as a whole is appallingly familiar in Central and Eastern Europe. It is unacceptable that the operations of the national security services, which are necessarily carried out in secret, should become a tool of oppression rather than a means of protecting citizens," said Ádám Remport, a TASZ expert on surveillance issues.

Legal representation in the proceedings is provided by lawyers Tivadar Hüttl, Flóra Kollarics and Kata Nehéz-Posony.

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