WhatsApp have informed a leading Catholic bishop and a priest in Togo that they were victims of a spyware attack.

Last year, WhatsApp announced that 1,400 users had been attacked by the same spying technology in April.

In a US lawsuit, the Facebook-owned company accused NSO Group, a private Israeli surveillance firm, of facilitating the attacks. NSO Group responded that its clients would remain anonymous but would carry out an investigation if it appeared its surveillance technology was being used against people who were not criminals or terrorists.

As reported on Monday by the Guardian and Le Monde, Bishop Benoît Alowonou of Kpalimé and four other critics of the Togo government were informed by WhatsApp last year that they had been targeted in the attack.

The other victims willing to be identified include Fr Pierre Chanel Affognon, head of the campaigning group Hope for Togo, Elliott Ohin, a former government minister, and Raymond Houndjo, a prominent member of the ANC opposition party.

University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab researchers confirmed that at least six people had been targeted by the malware in Togo, which they said was one of five countries in Africa where NSO Group technology may be in use.

“At this time, Citizen Lab is not conclusively stating which government is responsible for this attack,” said John Scott-Railton, a senior member of the organization’s research team. “But the fact that these individuals are all either opposition party members or otherwise critical of the government is troubling.” He added that he was “especially concerned” clergy were being targeted.

Head of WhatsApp, Will Cathcart, recently spoke of the way in which the April 2019 malware attacks had targeted “journalists, human rights advocates, government officials, [and] religious leaders” in “really horrifying ways”.

President Faure Gnassingbé has led Togo since the 2005 death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who ruled the country for 38 years.

Under Gnassingbé, the authorities in Togo have been responsible for significant human rights violations, with a 2010 US State Department report highlighting “executive influence over the judiciary”, “arbitrary arrests and detention” and “security force use of excessive force, including torture, which resulted in deaths and injuries”.

The Catholic Church in Togo has spoken in defence of human rights and democracy throughout Gnassingbé’s time in office.

Bishop Alowonou, president of the national bishop’s conference in Togo, has been particularly vocal in his criticism of the current administration. In a recent interview, he said the Church must “sometimes say truths that irritate the powerful”, adding that during elections “we took positions in favour of truth.”

During a 2015 ad limina visit in Rome, the bishop was thanked by Pope Francis for the Togolese Church’s justice and peace efforts, but the Pope also reportedly cautioned Bishop Alowonou against excessive political entanglement.

Image: Photograph of Bishop Benoît Alowonou meeting Pope Francis during his ad limina visit, courtesy of Radio Maria Togo on Facebook

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