KIGALI – Reports that Rwanda has heavily invested in a unique Israeli technology to spy on its citizens and dissidents are farfetched and laughable, President Paul Kagame has said.
“We’ve done intelligence for many years but we don’t use the technology they are talking about. It is too expensive yet we have sectors like education to spend such money on,” Kagame, who was on Friday addressing local and international journalists in Kigali, said.
The Rwandan leader’s refutal follows a recent investigative report by the Financial Times that showed that WhatsApp, a messaging service owned by Facebook, had uncovered massive hack and surveillance of gadgets by governments, including Rwanda’s, who targeted dissidents, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and political opposition members.
The Financial Times reports says that on the list of targeted individuals identified by WhatsApp, a considerable number were from Rwanda.
The powerful software known as Pegasus is an NSO Group product that can remotely and covertly extract valuable intelligence from mobile devices, by sharing all phone activity including communications and location data with the attacker.
The hack worked by the user receiving a video- or voice-call request from an unknown number on WhatsApp. However, even when the number was ignored it was enough for the call to be used to hack into the user’s phone even without them answering it. It was also used to access personal data on the device including text messages and location.
The Financial Times said it interviewed six Rwandan dissidents who said they had received these dropped calls and includes several interviews in its report.
When a journalist asked President Kagame to comment on the investigative report and the claims by WhatsApp Inc., the Rwandan leader said it was laughable to suggest that his government could invest so much in technology.
“For Intelligence, we rely on Human Intelligence, we are very good at that,” he said.
The Rwandan government had remained largely quiet on the report since it was published on October 30 without a comment from Kigali.
Rwanda’s ties with Israel has shot up remarkably over the last five years as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government covered the continent to improve Israel’s presence in Africa. In 2016, Netanyahu visited Kigali during his tour of Africa and pledged to open an embassy in the central African state.
The Israeli embassy in Rwanda was subsequently opened in April this year.
WhatsApp sued NSO Group last month, accusing it of helping government spies break into the phones of roughly 1,400 users across four continents in a hacking spree.
But NSO Group denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, Kagame also responded to queries on the letter by six British lawmakers who called for the freeing of high-ranking army officers convicted of inciting insurrection and tarnishing the government’s image, among other crimes.
Col Tom Byabagamba and retired Brig Gen Frank Rusagara were arrested in 2014 and sentenced in 2016 to 21 and 20 years in prison, respectively.
“I never received any letter from the MPs. Maybe it was an open letter. If they are concerned about justice, why don’t they care about the many Genocide suspects they are protecting?” Kagame said.
Among the high-profile suspects wanted in Rwanda for their alleged role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi who are believed to be living a free life in the UK include Dr Vincent Bajinya, Célestin Ugirashebuja, Charles Munyaneza, Emmanuel Nteziryayo and Célestin Mutabaruka.
Britain, a signatory to the Genocide Convention Law, has always dragged its feet whenever called upon to extradite the suspects to face trial in Rwanda.
Kagame said the call by the British legislators “complicated the judicial process” and asked that the law should be left to take its course.
“I’m not sure the British MPs are aware of how they complicate this case. I will let the Attorney General and the Justice department handle the matter,” he said.
Earlier, Kagame’s government protested a call by British legislators, saying the two were convicted of serious crimes.
Rwandan Justice minister Johnson Busingye said there are limited circumstances in which the government can intervene in criminal cases but revealed that the cases of the two men are presently on appeal.
“It would be inappropriate for the Executive to comment on any pending case, seek to influence the outcome or intervene as proposed in your letter,” the minister said in response to the British legilsators, who included Baroness D’Souza, Lord Steel, Baroness Northover, Matthew Offord, Ivan Lewis and Rosie Duffield.