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Macedonian surveillance scandal

Boris Georgievski
December 1, 2016

Prosecutors in Macedonia believe a phone tapping scandal is even larger than previously thought. But they said a telecom operator is hampering their efforts to expose the extent of illegal surveillance.

T Mobile Netz Störung
Image: AP

After months of investigation, the Macedonian Special Prosecution has identified the domestic intelligence service as the source of massive illegal surveillance in the country.

"Ten former and current employees of the Security and Counterespionage Agency, holding either managerial or lower positions, were charged with abusing their position in the agency," Special Prosecutor Fatime Fetai told reporters in Skopje on November 18.

The large-scalewiretapping scandal - which saw more than 5,800 phone numbers tapped between 2008 and 2015 and involved 20,000 alleged victims, including politicians, journalists, judges, police and religious leaders - was revealed last year. The ensuing political crisis resulted in early elections scheduled for December 11.

The investigation has revealed the names of dozens of politicians, businessmen and journalists whose phones were tapped, among them many opposition politicians as well as high-ranking government officials. Telephone conversations of former Minister of Interior Gordana Jankuloska, who resigned in May 2015 amid another scandal, were illegally wiretapped for over 700 days. DW Macedonian correspondent Katerina Blazevska's phone was also illegally tapped for over three years.

Evidence withheld

Prosecutors said more people may have been affected, but key evidence is being withheld by one of the country's two telecommunications operators. The country's main telecom providers, Makedonski Telekom and one.Vip, claimed to have fully cooperated with authorities.

Mazedonien Press Sonderstaatsanwaltschaft in Skopje
The Special Prosecutors is examining the extent of surveillance in MacedoniaImage: DW/P. Stojanovski

German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom owns Makedonski Telekom through its Hungarian subsidiary Magyar Telekom, while one.Vip is a subsidiary of Austria Telekom.

Prosecution sources told DW on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing investigation that Makedonski Telekom has so far failed to cooperate. "They always answer with the same sentence: 'We do not possess such information,'" sources at the Special Prosecution told DW.

Both Makedonski Telekom and Deutsche Telekom deny the allegation.

"To the best of our knowledge, Makedonski Telekom is fully cooperating with the law enforcement agencies to support the investigation," Deutsche Telekom spokeswoman Elpida Trizi told DW. "Of course, we encourage this and we are in contact with our local colleagues."

Three days after the Special Prosecution went public with its findings, one.Vip Executive Director Nikola Ljusev left his post in what he told DW was a "personal decision." An Austria Telekom spokesperson also told DW, "Mr. Ljushev took this decision of his own accord" without any connection with the ongoing investigation or possible political pressure.

However, according to information made available to DW, the Special Prosecution managed to obtain logs about the illegal wiretapping from one.Vip. DW information showed Ljusev was not actively cooperating with the Special Prosecution..

Nikola Ljusev - der frühere Direktor von One.Vip
Ljusev said leaving one.Vip was a personal decisionImage: P. Stojanovski

The Special Prosecution investigation has so far indicated that technical equipment used during the illegal surveillance from 2008 until 2015 was produced by the Swedish telecommunications giant Ericsson and used by both Makedonski Telekom and one.Vip. Two of the wiretapping systems used have since been destroyed. 

The special prosecutor's office said those systems, used between 2008 and 2015, should not have been destroyed and has opened another investigation into their destruction.

No access to the protected logs

Ericsson equipment has a record-keeping tool that enables the operator to prove what has been done in the operator domain. The information is stored in an encrypted and access-protected log, which is only to be opened in case of disputes or when ordered to do so by courts.

Macedonian Special Prosecution has so far been denied access to the protected logs that possibly still exist in Makedonski Telekom.

Additionally, after the mass surveillance scandal in Macedonia came to light in February 2015, Deutsche Telekom ordered Magyar Telekom to conduct an internal investigation with the support of external experts. In March 2016, after the investigation was finished, a Deutsche Telekom spokeswoman told DW that the company would not comment publicly on the internal investigation's findings.

The Special Prosecution as well as a Macedonian parliamentary commission that supervises the work of the secret service unsuccessfully requested the Makedonski Telekom report.

Deutsche Telekom officials said, "Such a request never reached them."

The company's perceived unwillingness to cooperate has led to criticism of Deutsche Telekom's subsidiary in Macedonia. When the Special Prosecution published their findings the Makedonski Telekom Facebook page was flooded with negative reviews and comments.

Special Prosecutor Fatime Fetai told journalists in mid-November that her office believes that the illegal wiretapping continued after the scandal broke in February 2015.

The Special Prosecution office was formed as part of the political deal reached in July 2015 with the help of EU mediation. The ruling VMRO-DPMNE party regularly accuses the Special prosecutor's office of working for the opposition.