Undercover operatives targeted researchers, who reported previously that Israeli surveillance software program vendor known as the NSO Group sold the software program "Pegasus" to Riyadh to spy on Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's inner circle before his killing, The Associated Press reported on Saturday.
Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post and a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents at its consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, provoking an international outcry.
The kingdom initially denied any role in Khashoggi's disappearance before acknowledging that he was murdered inside the consulate but passed the buck to rogue agents, while insisting that the crown prince had no prior knowledge of the matter, an explanation far from convincing for many.
Reportedly, twice in the past two months, the employees of Citizen Lab based out of the University of Toronto became the target of undercover agents and have been interviewed by those who have been contacted by the employees through fake companies and fake identities.
Quizzed for hours about their work exposing Israeli surveillance and the main details of their private lives, the researchers believed they had been secretly recorded.
In October, Citizen Lab revealed that an iPhone belonging to one of Khashoggi's confidantes was seized by the NSO's software only months before Khashoggi's murder.
Omar Abdulaziz, a close friend of Khashoggi, later asserted that the hacking had revealed Khashoggi's criticisms of the Saudi royal family to the kingdom's spies, adding the hacking "played a major role" in his death.
NSO, on the other hand, has long denied that the software was used to spy on Khashoggi, and refused to comment whether it has sold its software to the Saudi government.
"We condemn these sinister, underhanded actions with the strongest potential phrases," he said during an announcement on Friday. "Such a deceitful assault on an instructional group just like the Citizen Lab is an assault on tutorial freedom all over the place," Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab said, while commenting on the investigation.
Citizen Lab has unrolled state-backed hackers working in locations as far afield as Tibet, Ethiopia and Syria, for years and has been collecting more than two years of evidence against NSO Group's clients, including countries such as Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the group has drawn consideration for its exposes that these countries have mistreated Pegasus software. U.N. expert awaits permission from Riyadh to lead inquiry to Khashoggi's murder.
Meanwhile, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions told Reuters on Saturday that her request to have access to the crime scene in Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul to lead an independent international probe into the murder of Khashoggi has not yet replied to from Riyadh.
Agnes Callamard, an independent U.N. investigator, who begins today a week-long mission to Turkey in an aim to head an independent international inquiry into the murder of Khashoggi, said she had not yet had a reply from authorities of the kingdom.
"I have requested access to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and a meeting with the ambassador of the Kingdom of Saud Arabia in Turkey," Callamard said in an email to Reuters. "I have also sought permission to conduct a similar country-visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."
She added that she will evaluate the circumstances of the crime, and "the nature and the extent of states' and individuals' responsibilities for the killing."