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Hungarians protest over alleged government spying

People hold banners show Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, reading: "We have to say no for observation!'' and ''Do they already stole our private life?", left, and "It was enough! Fly!" during a protest against the government's alleged use of powerful spyware to spy on opponents, Budapest, Hungary, July 26, 2021. A report released more than a week ago by investigative journalists suggested the government used the software to monitor critical journalists, politicians and businesspeople through their smartphones. (AP Photo/Anna Szilagyi)

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Around 1,000 protesters in Hungary’s capital on Monday demanded answers to allegations that the country’s right-wing government used powerful spyware to secretly monitor critical journalists, lawyers and business figures.

The protest march, which departed from a building that housed the secret police of Hungary’s communist and fascist regimes in the 20th century, came more than a week after a global investigation suggested that the digital devices of around 300 individuals had been targeted by the spyware in the Central European country — including at least 10 lawyers and five journalists.

“This scandal shows we cannot talk about the rule of law anymore in Hungary,” said Anna Donath, a Hungarian lawmaker in the European Union’s legislature who attended the demonstration. “Our demand is the resignation of the government.”

The Pegasus malware, produced by Israeli hacker-for-hire outfit NSO Group, infiltrates phones to collect personal data and location information, and can surreptitiously control the smartphone’s microphones and cameras. In the case of journalists, hackers can spy on reporters’ communications with sources.

Since the publication of the investigation’s results, Hungarian investigative journalism outlet Direkt36 released its findings that the president of the Hungarian Bar Association, a former state secretary and an opposition mayor were also targeted with the spyware.

Officials have declined to confirm or deny whether the government used the Pegasus software, but have maintained that all secret surveillance activities are conducted in accordance with Hungarian law.

Speaking in Brussels last week, Justice Minister Judit Varga wouldn’t say whether Hungary had purchased the spyware, but told reporters that “every country needs such tools.”

“It’s an illusion if anyone tries to make an issue out of it,” Varga said.

Monday’s protest was hosted by several opposition political parties that have allied to challenge hard-line Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz party in elections next year.

Last week, three opposition members of Hungary’s parliamentary national security committee called for an emergency session to question government agencies on their potential involvement in the spying.

But on Monday, Fidesz members of the committee, representing the majority of seats, boycotted the session, preventing questioning of Interior Minister Sandor Pinter.

“I look at this as a confession on their part that they have something to hide here,” committee chairman Janos Stummer, of the right-wing Jobbik party, told The Associated Press.

Stummer said the opposition members of the committee would use all available means to determine whether Hungary’s government had purchased the spyware, and to find out if it had unlawfully targeted its political opponents.

“One week later they’re still saying it’s fake news, and they expect this scandal will die down and go quiet. The way I see it, there will certainly be a continuation of this,” Stummer said.

Gyorgy Ujlaki, 45, walked with Monday’s protest march to the Fidesz party headquarters near Budapest’s expansive city park.

“I found this outrageous. It is just a new phase of Orban’s system which in the last 11 years has systematically dismantled the rule of law,” he said.

“The correct thing for them to do would have been not spy on their political opponents, but now the best thing they can do is resign.”