Opposition mayor has long suspected to be surveilled. Now we know that he has been targeted with Pegasus

The burglars searched all of György Gémesi’s house, the mayor a historic town near Budapest called Gödöllő. They broke the locks, turned over the drawers, and left documents scattered around on the floor. Although there were quite a few valuables in the house, almost nothing was taken. 

They took an envelope containing foreign bills left over from a few foreign trips, a watch won in a fencing competition decades earlier, and an old wedding ring that had sentimental rather than material value for the now 65-year-old divorced opposition politician.

The same day, on December 11, 2018, someone broke into his son’s apartment as well, who lived in the same house, but in a separate unit. This was followed a few weeks later by another burglary, this time to Gémesi’s daughter who lived next door. As this happened days after Christmas, quite a few valuable gifts lay under the tree. But again, the burglars barely took anything.

“The burglary was shocking because they invaded my privacy, what’s only mine” Gémesi told Direkt36. He is convinced that the purpose of the burglaries was intimidation government circles, or to collect compromising material about him. Gémesi, however, had no evidence of this.

Gémesi’s telephone number appeared on the leaked list that includes the potential targets selected by the Hungarian operators of the Israeli cyber security company NSO. The database was obtained by Forbidden Stories together with international human rights group Amnesty International (AI). They then shared the data with 16 other news outlets around the world, including Direkt36 from Hungary, which analysed the records. 

If a phone number appears in this database, it does not necessarily mean that the target was actually attacked with Pegasus and that the hacking was successful. However, AI’s posterior technical forensic analyses of targets’ mobile phones have proved in multiple cases that devices selected for targeting were indeed hacked with NSO’s tool. This not only means that targets’ phone calls could have been wiretapped through these breaches, but even their most sensitive information, for example, emails and other messages as well as photos and videos could have been accessed.

According to the leaked data, Gémesi had been selected as a target at the end of 2018, before the burglaries started. The phone he used that time could not have been analysed because Gémesi has already replaced it and the data was deleted from the old device. 

Three other numbers connected to people close to Gémesi were also targeted around the same time as the mayor. 

According to Gémesi, he has been harassed and threatened for years. He has spoken publicly about his suspicions that he is being monitored by the Hungarian secret services. He says the attacks intensified after he had begun to form a new party with several of his fellow mayors.

Direkt36’s findings strongly suggest that Pegasus is used against Hungarian targets by the Hungarian state. The government has not denied this in their comments since the story broke. They said that they are not aware of this kind of data collection, and they stress that they did not put anyone under surveillance illegally. The government did not respond to specific questions about Gémesi’s targeting.

A right-wing critic of Orbán

György Gémesi has been leading the city of Gödöllő, with a population of 32,000, thirty kilometers from Budapest since 1990. The politician – who is a surgeon by profession and also had a sports career as a fencer – joined the right-wing, conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) during the regime change. From 1998 to 2006, he was also a member of parliament. In the 2000s, Viktor Orbán and his party, Fidesz, overpowered other independent, right-wing parties, and internal fights also made MDF crumble and eventually disintegrate.

Gémesi initially tried to compromise with Fidesz if the party supported him as mayor, but, he claimed, the promise made to him had been broken. Leaflets first started to circulate in his hometown during the 2010 municipal campaign. They claimed that the mayor was also supported by a local organization that defends the rights of sexual minorities – an organization that, in fact, did not exist. The relationship between the politician and the ruling party deteriorated so much that Fidesz later supported its own candidates over and over again in the right-wing city. Over the years, sometimes svastikas, sometimes homophobic messages were drawn on the election posters of Gémesi and his local patriot organization.

Gémesi once asked a Fidesz politician: “What should I do to be left alone? Should I maybe join Fidesz?” His interlocutor allegedly did not know what the answer was to this question.

Since 1991, Gémesi has been leading the interest-representing association of Hungarian mayors, the Hungarian Association of Local Governments, so he is in touch with a wide network of people across the country. “I probably personally know most of the mayors in Hungary, I constantly talk to them on the phone,” he said. Taking advantage of this, in 2016, he set out to create a right-wing party called the New Beginning, which would have helped the change of government by steering voters away from Fidesz.

“They shat their pants when New Beginning was launched. I would have had 60 good people, mayors, but Fidesz started buying them out with EU money and other tenders. In the end, there were only 10-12 people left of us,” Gémesi told Direkt36.

He said he received some friendly warnings from Fidesz politicians that it might not be the wisest thing to found a party. A former government official who knew Gémesi described the anger against the mayor to Direkt36: “Gémesi has joined the opposition; and those who join the other side are labelled as traitors.” The mayor, on the other hand – referring to Fidesz’s liberal past – said: “they are calling me a left liberal, although I had been on the right a lot earlier than they were.”

Gémesi, who was becoming increasingly critical of the government, also began to speak out in public about threats and surveillance during this period. In an interview in the spring of 2017, he insinuated that he did not feel safe physically. In a later TV interview, he bluntly stated that the government tends to surveil mayors, “they cite national security reasons and that’s it.” Gémesi said he does not have – and cannot have – specific evidence, but he arrived at this conclusion due to signs such as “information is changing hands that has only been uttered in private”.

The mayor switches to Signal

The mayor, increasingly wary of surveillance, turned to a security professional so that his party, New Beginning, could communicate over a secure network. He convinced Gémesi to start using Signal, an encrypted messaging application. The mayor said he does not really understand IT, he does not have a laptop, and he only turns on his 18-year-old desktop a few times a year when he has to write a speech. The use of encrypted applications became important as he handles the affairs of the city, the municipal association and his party exclusively from his mobile phone.

According to data obtained by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, which was also examined by Direkt36, Gémesi was selected as a target of the spyware at the end of 2018, exactly at a time when he came under severe government pressure, and then somebody broke into and searched his and his children’s homes. Reacting to the fact that his phone might have been compromised by the spyware, Gémesi said: “it’s like a burglary, too. They’re stepping into your private sphere.”

By this time, the mayor’s party, New Beginning, had already given up doing politics on its own. After entering into an alliance with a party called Politics Can Be Different (LMP), it won a single seat in the April 2018 parliamentary elections, while the Orbán government was re-elected with two-thirds majority. At the same time, Gémesi still retained an important position: at that time, he was the leader of an association of 116 municipalities called the Green Bridge, which was responsible for garbage collection in Gödöllő and its region. In practice, they operated garbage trucks and were responsible for sorting and storing garbage.

The fee for this service is not collected by Green Bridge and other similar associations, but by the state-owned NHKV National Coordination of Waste Management and Asset Management (NHKV) Zrt. The fees collected are then distributed by NHKV to Green Bridge and other similar association, which, in this way, become financially dependent on the state.

In previous years, Gémesi had established a good working relationship with Balázs Weingartner, the young leader of NHKV. The mayor said that they managed to agree on financial issues, and the mayor had the feeling that the technocrat Weingartner – due to professional reasons – simply did not want to assist to the political attacks against Gémesi. Weingartner, however, became a secretary of state in mid-2018, and the new leader of NHKV halted payments to Green Bridge.

“Green Bridge was a damn good association, it bothered the government that we proved it was possible to operate 20-30% cheaper than the others because we didn’t steal,” said Gémesi, who under pressure, eventually resigned from leading the association. According to him, the original plot was to use the Green Bridge case to forge a legal case so that he could be taken away in handcuffs in the 2019 campaign, and the attempted gathering of incriminating information on him would have served this purpose too.

At the time, Weingartner had already been a new secretary of state in the government’s Ministry of Innovation and Technology (ITM) and was in charge of environmental affairs. Despite his government position, his phone number also appears during this period among the numbers chosen for targeting with the Israeli Pegasus spyware.

There are also two phone numbers linked to one of Gémesi’s closest allies. He is Szilárd Gyenes, then managing director of Green Bridge, who also worked with Gémesi at the mayor’s office and who is currently vice chairman of the New Beginning party. Gyenes was also a candidate for member of parliament in the 2018 election and is currently running for the candidacy again in the opposition primaries leading up to the 2022 parliamentary elections.

As head of NHKV, Weingartner typically consulted with Gyenes on Green Bridge affairs rather than Gémesi. Even in the fall of 2018, the two had phone conversations and exchanged messages on mobile apps. Weingartner was fired as secretary of state in the summer of 2019, but he still works as chief adviser to ITM Minister László Palkovics. When Direkt36 told him that his phone number appeared among the selected targets, he only said: thank you for the information and good luck with your work.

Gyenes was shock by the news that someone wanted to monitor him. “One would have thought that such things would be impossible in an EU member state 30 years after the democratic transition, the fall of the dictatorship,” he said.

Moreover, it turned out that even a family member of the politician may be affected. The strange thing about the two phone numbers associated with Gyenes is that in one case it seems that they were entered incorrectly into the target selection system. The number is exactly the same as Szilárd Gyenes’s mobile phone number, but a 3 digit was probably accidentally typed in as 8. If this was really an error, it probably remained unnoticed, because the correct number of Gyenes is not in the database at all.

But they must have been interested in Gyenes, as they entered a phone number among the spyware targets that was used by Gyenes’ partner, the mother of their three children. The explanation could be that each family member has their mobile subscription in a family plan under Gyenes’s name. The vice chariman of the New Beginning party said he never used his partner’s phone number and his partner keeps herself away from politics anyway.

“We used to have several phone conversations with Gémesi, which we started jokingly by greeting the Hungarian intelligence services who had just joined our call. It was a recurring joke,” the opposition politician told, who now thinks their instincts were unfortunately right.

An old, discontinued product line

The burglaries at Gémesi’s and his children’s homes came after the Green Bridge case in the end of 2018. The opposition politician filed a complaint with the police and also reported the damage to his insurance company. While the Gödöllő police could not solve the crimes, a representative of the insurance company told the mayor that he had never seen a similar case in his career, saying “it is not an ordinary burglary, it is political”.

Gémesi did not know what to think about the first burglaries, but after they broke into her daughter’s home, no doubt remained. The first burglary, for example, took place exactly during that three to four hours time window when no one was home. In order to obtain information about the exact whereabouts of Gémesi and his family, very close surveillance was required, the opposition politician argued. However, this sophistication and energy invested into the crime is not in line with the value of stolen items and money. “They tried to look for compromising information, but since I’m not corrupt, they couldn’t find anything. My private life is my private life, of course you can dig into that,” Gémesi said, adding that they could not find anything illegal on him.

In the 2019 municipal elections, Viktor Orbán indicated that a Fidesz win in Gödöllő was important to him personally. “It’s here under the armpit of the capital and we don’t have much luck with it I don’t know since when – Orbán said of the city when personally campaigning for the Fidesz candidate challenging Gémesi before the elections.

According to Gémesi, in addition to Orbán’s visit, his opponents tried something else: 15-20 of his employees were approached to betray him and deliver incriminating information about him. In the end, even this was not enough for the ruling party to take over Gödöllő, Gémesi won as mayor for the eighth time.

“Gödöllő is also of strategic importance for the government because of the Royal Palace and the local university development project. And they may have thought of me for a long time, because I am well known and accepted, that I can become one of the leaders of the opposition,” Gémesi explained the efforts against him. “Today, they may see that I have no such ambition. I’m an old, discontinued run-down product line,” he added.

  • Szabolcs Panyi

    Szabolcs graduated from Eötvös Loránd University where he studied Hungarian language and literature. Between 2013 and 2018, he was an editor and political reporter at Index.hu. At Arizona State University, he studied investigative journalism on a Fulbright Fellowship in 2017-2018. In the fall of 2018, he joined Direkt36, where he mainly works on stories related to national security and foreign policy. Meanwhile, he helped launch VSquare.org, a Warsaw-based cross-border investigative journalism initiative for the Visegrád region, where he is currently leading the Central Eastern European investigations. He received the Quality Journalism Award and the Transparency-Soma Award four times each, and he was also shortlisted for the European Press Prize in 2018 and 2021.