The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Qatar, the Government of Germany, as well as the company Google LLC on 24 March 2023. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the recipients time to reply. The Government of Germany replied on 17 May 2023. Regrettably, the Government of Qatar and Google LLC did not reply within this time frame. If a reply is received it will be posted on the UN Special Procedures communications database.
This is a shorter version of the original communication.
Topic: alleged intimidation of and cyber-attacks against Mark Somos, following his communications with various UN human rights bodies regarding alleged human rights violations committed by the State of Qatar against his clients.
Mr. Mark Somos, a dual US and Hungarian national, is a human rights lawyer based in Heidelberg, Germany, and Senior Research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law. He has served as counsel in proceedings in front of the International Court of Justice and is the director of Just Access, a non-governmental organisation based in Germany. He has also represented victims of human rights violations in a number of proceedings before UN bodies and human rights mechanisms. In this capacity, Mr. Somos submitted complaints and individual communications regarding alleged abuses against his clients by the State of Qatar.
In December 2019, a series of cyberattacks began against Mr. Somos’s Google accounts and lasted until February 2020, including attempts to access his accounts, and at least one occasion in which an unauthorised device accessed his Gmail account.
Between 8 December 2019 and 19 January 2020, an Android device using the reference “D13” accessed or attempted to access Mr. Somos’s Google account, in at least one instance from a location close to his office in Heidelberg.
On 24 January 2020, Mr. Somos received a security alert from Google, informing him that the account recovery phone number and recovery email linked to his Gmail account had been changed by someone using a phone number with a Qatar telephone prefix (+974); Google had masked the rest of the number in its alert.
On 3 February 2020, an individual using an IP address understood to be based in Kerala, India attempted to hack his Gmail account. On the same day, an unknown individual or group using a Windows system had accessed his Gmail account utilising an IP address understood to be based in Hong Kong or Singapore.
These cyber-attacks came less than two months after Mr. Somos submitted complaints and urgent appeals to the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) and other UN human rights mechanisms regarding the detention of Sheikh Talal bin Abdul-Aziz bin Ahmed bin Ali Al-Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family, and alleged abuses against his wife and children by the State of Qatar.
In October 2019, Mr. Somos filed a complaint to the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of the wife and four children of Sheikh Talal Al-Thani, who has been detained in Qatar since 2013.
During the same period Mr. Somos also submitted complaints to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture about psychological torture by the State of Qatar of Mrs. Arian and her children in the form of threats and intimidation and forced family separation. He also wrote to the Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls, about discrimination against Mrs. Arian with respect to her rights to property and adequate housing in Qatar. Furthermore, Mr. Somos also submitted communications on behalf of Sheikh Talal Al-Thani to the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, requesting his access to a lawyer of his choice, and to the Special Rapporteur on the rights of person with disabilities, highlighting his treatment in detention that caused him disabilities.
On 17 December 2019, Mr. Somos submitted an urgent appeal to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) in relation to Sheikh Talal Al-Thani. The WGAD transmitted a communication to the Government of Qatar in April 2021, to which it has received no reply. The WGAD made public its opinion concerning Sheikh Talal Al-Thani on 18 March 2022, in which it concluded that his arrest and detention were arbitrary, under Category I, III and that he was deprived of his liberty on the grounds of discrimination, namely his status as a member of the royal family.
On 19 October 2020, the Special Rapporteur on torture, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions; and the Special Rapporteur on the right to health sent a joint letter to the Government of Qatar, expressing their concerns about the charges, judicial proceedings and decisions against Sheikh Talal Al-Thani, as well as about the use of intimidation against him and his family, and about his physical and mental integrity due to the conditions of detention and the denial of appropriate medical care. On 15 January 2021, the Government responded to mandate-holders providing information about the criminal charges against Sheikh Talal Al-Thani and his conditions of detention.
During this period, the NGO Just Access made joint public submissions to different UN human rights mechanisms, such as the treaty bodies, and Mr. Somos participated in NGO sponsored side-events at the margins of the Human Rights Council.
Mr. Somos has reported the hacking attempts of his Gmail accounts and those of Mrs. Arian to the German police and security authorities, and her case is currently under examination by the prosecution.
On 27 January 2020 Mr. Somos wrote to Google, the European and Middle Eastern operations of which are run out of Dublin, Ireland. He provided background on the cyberattacks and requested further related information from Google.
On 29 January 2020, Mr. Somos received a reply from Google stating that a court order would be required in order for the company to comply with his request.
On 4 February 2020, Mr. Somos’s solicitors wrote to Google with information on the two further breaches that occurred on 3 February 2020, as cited above. Google responded that it would only provide information following a court order. Mr. Somos subsequently presented his case to the Irish High Court against Google as Defendant, arguing that the company had become mixed up in wrongdoing, possibly inadvertently, and may have further information that could assist in identifying the hacking perpetrator. He requested a Court order available in Ireland and known as a Norwhich Pharmacal order, for the disclosure of information.
In the communication, we express our deep concern at the intimidation and cyberattacks on his Gmail and Google account which may constitute acts of intimidation or reprisal against Mr. Somos, which appear to be directly linked to his legitimate work as a human rights defender including his cooperation with the UN and its mechanisms in the field of human rights. We are concerned that they would have caused considerable distress to Mr. Somos, not only as a breach of his privacy and personal data rights but also his confidential activities as a lawyer and human rights defender, and the victims that have potentially been in communication with him. In this regard, we highlight that privacy functions as a gateway right to the protection of a host of other fundamental rights including non-derogable rights. We are further concerned about the chilling effect the alleged intimidation, cyber-attacks and breaches of privacy rights can have on the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information.