Malta Moves to Strip Citizenship From Sanctioned Israeli Spyware CEO

The Maltese government has commenced the process of revoking citizenship from Tal Dilian, the CEO of controversial cyber spyware company Intellexa. The move comes after the US Treasury added Dilian, an ex-Israeli intelligence officer, to its Specially Designated Nationals sanctions list on Tuesday.

The listing relates to sanctions imposed on members of the “Intellexa Spyware Consortium” for allegedly developing and marketing invasive surveillance tools that enable device compromise globally. Dilian, in addition to being Maltese, is an Israeli citizen.

In a statement Wednesday, Malta’s Home Affairs Ministry said, “the deprivation process is being initiated by the Minister […] in accordance with the Maltese Citizenship Act,” which allows revocation under established circumstances. While the Ministry did not confirm how Dilian originally obtained Maltese nationality, according to The Times of Malta, it was likely via the nation’s Individual Investor Programme (predecessor to the MEIN policy).

Under Maltese citizenship law, the Minister may revoke the citizenships of those who acquired it under the IIP (or MEIN) if they have engaged in acts “contrary to the interests of public policy or public security” within seven years of acquiring citizenship.

Had Dilian not held any other nationality, however, Maltese authorities could not have deprived him of his Maltese citizenship without violating principles of international law and human rights conventions around preventing statelessness. Maltese nationality law also expressly prohibits citizenship deprivation that would render the individual stateless unless the citizenship was obtained fraudulently.

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American officials accuse Intellexa of selling commercial spyware for “targeted and mass surveillance campaigns,” able to hack Android and iOS devices per company marketing materials. The “Predator” spyware has allegedly been deployed across multiple countries, with Amnesty International alleging it targeted devices connected to European Parliament President Roberta Metsola. Dilian, the State Department said, “is the architect behind [Intellexa’s] spyware tools” comprising “a complex international web of decentralized companies” he controls.

The revocation process underscores Malta’s response to allegations of enabling access to its citizenship for potentially illicit actors and assets. The developments highlight the challenges of screening applicants thoroughly in advance while retaining the ability to rectify issues arising later.

As CBI programs worldwide face pressures to root out bad actors more proactively, Malta’s response signals a willingness to rescind rights when warranted.

Following a spate of sanctions imposed in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the European Commission called for CBI programs countries to revoke the citizenship of sanctioned individuals.

Malta’s move is not without precedent. Cyprus has rescinded the citizenships of hundreds of individuals who obtained it through that country’s erstwhile CIP. In 2018, Saint Lucia revoked the citizenships of 18 CBI investors who had brought the country “into disrepute.”

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