New York, April 15, 2021 – The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed concern over an account by Palestinian journalist Muath Hamed that he was summoned by Spanish authorities under false pretenses and questioned about his journalistic activity by someone he believes to be an Israeli intelligence operative.
In early February, officers with Spain’s Civil Guard called Hamed, a Palestinian reporter for the Qatari broadcaster Al-Araby TV and the news website Al-Araby al-Jadeed, and asked to speak with him about his asylum status, according to the journalist, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app.
However, when Hamed arrived at the Civil Guard headquarters in Madrid for that meeting on February 11, an officer put him in the custody of someone who told the journalist that he was an Israeli intelligence operative, Hamed told CPJ as well as the local news outlet Publico and his employer.
The alleged intelligence agent questioned Hamed about the sources for his December 30, 2019, Al-Araby al-Jadeed story about shell companies and organizations allegedly used by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad to pay informants in Eastern Europe, Hamed told CPJ. He was then released unconditionally, he said.
Daniel Campos de Diego, the Spanish Interior Ministry’s communication director, told CPJ via messaging app today that the ministry has no knowledge of the meeting between Hamed and a suspected Israeli agent beyond the journalist’s allegations published in the press.
When asked if the Interior Ministry was looking into the case, Campos de Diego said that it was difficult to investigate such allegations because there are no official records. He also told CPJ that he did not know whether Spain and Israel had any agreement allowing for Israeli intelligence to interrogate asylum seekers.
CPJ emailed the Spanish Civil Guard, the Israeli Embassy in Spain, and Israel’s Mossad for comment, but did not receive any responses.
“We are deeply disturbed by the idea that Spanish security forces would be so underhanded as to summon a journalist for an informal chat and then let a foreign intelligence agent question him about his work and confidential sources,” said CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, Gulnoza Said. “Whether an attempt to intimidate the reporter, expose his sources, or recruit him as an informant, such efforts would be a clear violation of Muath Hamed’s right to do his journalistic work. Spanish authorities should hold an inquiry into Hamed’s allegations.”
Hamed has been seeking asylum in Spain since April 2019, following his arrest in the Palestinian Territories and imprisonment by Israeli authorities as a result of his political activities, he told CPJ, saying that he holds a “Red Card,” which allows asylum seekers to work after six months while their applications are pending.
In December 2020, Spanish Civil Guard officers identified as “Javier” and “Nicolas” had an informal chat with the journalist about his work in the Palestinian Territories and his life in Spain, he said, adding that he did not know either officer’s surname.
In February, Javier called Hamed and asked the journalist to bring him a Red Cross document confirming that he had been held in jail in Israel between April 2004 and July 2005.
When he arrived at the Civil Guard headquarters in Madrid, Javier met Hamed and introduced him to a man going by the name of Omar, who Javier said was a Belgian intelligence operative. In statements to the Spanish news website Publico, Hamed said that, upon arrival at the building, he was not required to identify himself and his name was not registered as usual at the building’s entrance.
“Javier said that Omar was of Palestinian origin, but he had a strong Israeli accent. When I replied in Hebrew, Omar laughed and Javier didn’t know how to react,” Hamed told CPJ. “Javier left the room saying that he would get water and left me alone in the room with Omar, who admitted he was working for Israel.”
Omar told Hamed that he was working for Israeli intelligence, and wanted to know about his sources for the 2019 story, the journalist said. Over about 10 minutes of questioning, Omar asked about Hamed’s sources in Turkey, his knowledge of Palestinian groups and organizations in Turkey and Europe and their fundraising efforts, as well as Hamed’s personal debts and financial situation, Hamed told CPJ.
“The most worrying thing was that he asked by name about sources that I have kept confidential and whose identities I have protected with pseudonyms in my articles,” Hamed said. “He knew their real names and that makes me believe that they have hacked my cell phone.”
After the questioning, Omar told Hamed he would be in touch through Javier. Hamed said that he tried to hand Javier the Red Cross document that he had requested, but he would not take it.
Hamed told CPJ that he suspected his phone may have been hacked in January, saying he received a suspicious Skype call from an unknown number, and since then his phone has acted strangely.
“Since that call, I had to recharge my battery up to five times a day, the phone slowed down and looked as if something was constantly uploading, it was so hot I could hardly touch it and whenever I was talking there was a constant background noise,” Hamed told CPJ. He said that he had emailed the digital rights group Citizen Lab with a request that they examine his phone, and was awaiting a reply.
According to Publico, it is not uncommon for Spanish security forces to summon migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers for informal chats. However, immigration and asylum issues are handled by the National Police, not the Civil Guard, according to Spanish law.
Hamed told CPJ that he found the original summons strange, because he had already supplied the necessary Red Cross documents to Spanish authorities when he made his asylum request in 2019.
“I understand why Spanish security forces would want to discuss my background. I have been in administrative detention in Israel because of my political activities as a university student and member of the student council and I am open to discussing that. I have nothing to hide,” Hamed said.
Al-Araby TV Director Abbas Nasser condemned the incident as ”bullying in a formal disguise” and expressed his solidarity with Hamed, according to the outlet. The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, a press rights and trade group, issued a statement calling on Spanish authorities to investigate Hamed’s allegations.