UK High Court allows Bahraini activists to sue government over spyware

Political dissidents targeted by the FinSpy surveillance software won the right to sue the Kingdom of Bahrain in a High Court judgment handed down in London on Wednesday.

The trial is set to be one of the first major legal examinations of how authoritarian regimes allegedly use spyware to monitor and persecute dissidents, even when they have moved to Western countries with greater protections for free speech.

Dr. Saeed Shahabi and Moosa Mohammed, activists who have attempted to highlight and condemn human rights abuses in the country, claim their laptops were infected by FinSpy in September 2011.

The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto described FinSpy, or FinFisher, as a “sophisticated computer spyware suite … sold exclusively to governments for intelligence and law enforcement purposes.” 

The activists who brought the High Court case believe that the spyware infections were “carried out, directed, authorized or caused by the Bahraini government or its agents,” according to law firm Leigh Day.

The Munich-based company behind the software declared insolvency last year amid an ongoing investigation into its business dealings. The German tech publication Heise reported in 2021 that the firm restructured under the name Vilicius Holding GmbH

Transnational distress

Shehabi, now 68, is described by the law firm as a “pro-democracy activist, journalist and leading figure in the Bahraini opposition movement” who has been repeatedly publicly denounced by the Bahraini government.

He has lived in the United Kingdom since 1973 and been a British citizen since 2002. In July 2009 — just days after two of his Bahraini associates who were political activists were beaten up in London — his home in Britain was set on fire.

According to his lawyers, Shehabi believes the attack was perpetrated by individuals acting on behalf of the Bahraini government.

Mohammed, 41, fled to the U.K. in 2006 as a refugee after being “repeatedly arrested, detained, tortured and mistreated by the Bahraini police,” as a result of his political activism, according to his lawyers. In 2012, both he and Shehabi had their Bahraini citizenship revoked.

In a statement Shehabi described “a long and gruelling pursuit of justice” as part of “the psychological torture that authoritarian regimes exercise transnationally.”

“In this case, hacking into my computers caused myself and many other victims like me severe mental distress and may have harmed many others whose information was compromised," he added. There needs to be clearer consensus over the criminality of transnational hacking in international law and an end to commercial hacking companies who are enabling it."

Mohammed said the judgment marked “a huge victory” but noted his brother was last month handed a seven-year conviction. “This decision demonstrates that we can prevail in our fight for justice and that our voices will not be muzzled by the Bahraini regime’s reprisals or intimidation. I will ensure Bahrain will be held to account.”

Leigh Day’s solicitor, Ida Aduwa, said the law firm and its clients were pleased that the case can now move forward to a trial.

The firm’s senior partner, Martin Day, added: “Our clients believe that the UK courts are the only mechanism for them to be able to achieve justice and they hope that by bringing their legal claims in an open and public court, a light will be shone on the underhand tactics used by some governments to try to silence their critics.”

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.