The report on the probe, released on May 25, said evidence points to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh as the reason for the attempted espionage using the Pegasus spyware.
A joint investigation involving researchers from several Internet watchdogs and rights groups has revealed that at least a dozen public figures in Armenia, including two Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists based in Yerevan, as well as hundreds of phone numbers in Azerbaijan, were targeted with Pegasus spyware.
Israel's NSO Group became the center of controversy after an international media consortium in July 2022 reported that its Pegasus spyware was used in attempts to hack smartphones belonging to more than a dozen current or former world leaders, journalists, human rights activists, and executives in some 50 countries.
The joint investigation was conducted with Amnesty International's Security Lab, Access Now, Canadian Internet watchdog Citizen Lab , CyberHUB-AM, and independent mobile security researcher Ruben Muradyan. The report on the probe, released on May 25, said evidence points to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh as the reason for the attempted espionage between October 2020 and December 2022.
It did not specifically accuse Azerbaijan of wrongdoing, but the investigators noted that Pegasus software has been used "extensively" by the country to target "a wide range of journalists."
"This investigation highlights the grave nature of spyware threats rippling across civil societies in Armenia and Azerbaijan," said Donncha O Cearbhaill, head of Amnesty International's Security Lab.
"The authorities must stop all efforts to stifle freedom of expression and undertake an independent and transparent investigation into the attack with Pegasus uncovered in both countries," he added.
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Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. Some 30,000 people were killed in a war in the early 1990s that left ethnic Armenians in control of the predominantly Armenian-populated region and seven adjacent districts of Azerbaijan proper.
Decades of internationally mediated talks failed to result in a diplomatic solution, and the simmering conflict led to another war in 2020 in which nearly 7,000 soldiers were killed on both sides.
The joint investigation began in Armenia when tech giant Apple sent notifications to users in November 2021 warning they may have been the targets of state-sponsored spyware.
It showed that Karlen Aslanyan and Astghik Bedevyan of RFE/RL's Armenian service were among those targeted in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Others targeted included human rights defenders, journalists, and officials.
"It is no accident that our Armenian Service journalists targeted with Pegasus spyware are well-known for their hard-hitting reporting," said RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly.
"I am outraged by this gross violation of their privacy and harbor strong suspicions that the government of Azerbaijan is responsible. I am grateful to our partners for their assistance."
Fighting in the six-week war in 2020 -- in which Azerbaijan regained all the Armenian-controlled areas outside of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as chunks of territory inside the Soviet-era autonomous region -- ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire under which Moscow deployed about 2,000 troops to serve as peacekeepers.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev are meeting in Moscow on May 25 as they try to work out a final peace agreement.