(New York, NY) – PEN America today lauded the courage of 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree Loujain Al-Hathloul, who is suing spyware maker DarkMatter Group, the entity behind the hacking program used to compromise Al-Hathloul’s phone that led to her wrongful arrest, detention, and torture.

“PEN America has long called for accountability for those who make and sell spyware that enables the surveillance of and attacks on journalists, academics, and dissidents,” said Matt Bailey, PEN America’s digital freedom program director. “Al-Hathloul’s suit is a courageous contribution to establishing that accountability and our collective safety. Programs such as DarkMatter’s deliberately enable egregious human rights abuses, as we have seen in Al-Hathloul’s case. PEN America continues to urge the adoption and enforcement of a comprehensive legal framework to limit the development and sale of spyware.”

The lawsuit, filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, alleges violations of international human rights law due to the use of the spyware for systemic rights violations against activists, journalists, and perceived critics of client governments including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. It also alleges violations of United States anti-hacking laws, specifically the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Also named in the complaint are three former United States intelligence operatives who ran the hacking program, used by governments including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to surveil political activists, journalists, and others. Al-Hathloul was arrested by security operatives in Abu Dhabi and later detained and tortured in Saudi Arabia as part of a crackdown on women’s rights activists in that country. 

Al-Hathloul and her co-honorees, Nouf Abdulaziz and Eman Al-Nafjan, are currently under conditional release in Saudi Arabia but continue to face highly restrictive conditions on their freedom of expression and other basic rights. Saudi Arabia, which regularly detains individuals on undisclosed, unknown, or specious charges, was ranked second globally in PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, which provides a count of writers and intellectuals jailed in 2020.