Former Hungarian ambassador to China was targeted with Pegasus – shortly before becoming senior advisor to Orbán

March 22. 2022. – 03:06 PM

Former Hungarian ambassador to China was targeted with Pegasus – shortly before becoming senior advisor to Orbán
Illustration by Somogy Péter (szarvas) / Telex

Translation by Andrea Horváth Kávai

The phone number of former Hungarian ambassador to Beijing, Cecília Szilas, who is now a person of trust to the Hungarian government, was also targeted with the Pegasus spyware program – Direkt36 has found out. Szilas’s phone was tapped with the Israeli spyware during the brief season of her working at the conflict-ridden Dunaferr, shortly before Viktor Orbán hired her as a Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister on China.

She filled this position of trust between 2019 and 2021, during which time she not only helped prepare Orbán for his meetings, but for example, attended negotiations with the leaders of the Shanghai-based Fudan University.

She is not the first government employee to have been targeted with the spyware. Direkt36 had previously reported that in addition to independent journalists, media moguls critical of the government and opposition politicians, people close to the government were also targeted with this technology. The targets include former State Secretaries Balázs Weingartner and Attila Aszódi, Zsolt Bodnár, head of the Counter-Terrorism Centre, as well as the leaders of president János Áder’s personal security staff.

“I have nothing to say about this. My life is an open book” – responded Szilas when Direkt36 phoned her to request a comment about why she might have become a target. When asked if it’s possible that she was targeted with the spyware due to a highly penetrating reliability examination, she responded by saying that she thinks it’s possible. However, she did not respond to our follow-up questions, such as when she had last undergone security screening, or when she was offered the position of Senior Advisor.

We found Cecília Szilas’ phone number in the database which includes around 50 thousand phone numbers from across the world, of which more than 300 are Hungarian. These are numbers which were chosen to be targeted, but it is not clear whether Szilas’ number was hacked with Pegasus and whether she was actually under observation. This can only be determined by examining her phone, which we were unable to do.

The former Senior Advisor first became a Pegasus-target in the summer of 2019. The database, however, does not make it possible to determine whether she was under surveillance at any point, and if so, then for how long. The reason for this is that the list includes numbers which were added up until that summer.

As previously mentioned, Szilas was targeted in the middle of 2019, when – between two government postings – she briefly worked as security director at ISD Dunaferr Dunai Vasmű Ltd. Before this, until the end of March 2019 she worked as Deputy State Secretary for Eastern Relations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (KKM), and beginning on September 1st, 2019, she was advising Orbán. It is not clear if her being targeted was connected to either of these posts, and if so, then which one.

According to the answer received from the Prime Minister’s office, in order to be a Senior Advisor, Szilas had to undergo a national security screening process, but they did not disclose when this had happened. Regular national security screenings are done every five years. Based on the available data, which shows that Szilas had become a diplomat in 2009, such a screening would have been due around 2019. Direkt36 submitted a public interest data request about the details of Szilas’ work and screening, but it was rejected.

The website of the Israel-based NSO Group, which made the spyware states that their product can only be implemented in investigations connected to organized crime or terrorism.

A recently presented investigation by the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (NAIH) into the Pegasus surveillance case claimed that the Hungarian authorities had indeed only used the spy software in law enforcement or terrorism-related cases.

However, it seems that Orbán’s government continues to trust the former ambassador-senior advisor, and there is no indication that there have been any criminal charges brought against her.

Szilas informed Direkt36 that since the termination of her mandate as senior advisor, she has been working as International Director at the Authority for Supervision of Regulated Activities. This newly established body is headed up by former State Secretary for Public Administration, Marcell Bíró, a man from the inner circle of the prime minister. Other than this, Szilas is on the Board of Trustees in the Foundation for Fudan Hungary University (which is supposed to establish the Budapest campus of Fudan University), and is a member of the “Women for Hungary” club lead by Katalin Novák who was recently appointed Hungarian president.

The government did not respond to any of our questions related to the former ambassador becoming a target of Pegasus.

To the top of diplomacy in a flash

Cecília Szilas was born in 1977. She first got involved in China-related politics in 2009, ten years before she was named senior advisor to the prime minister. That is when she became the science and technology attaché at the Hungarian embassy in Beijing.

Her relationship to China and Chinese connections dates back to long before 2009, however. Multiple sources familiar with the development of Chinese-Hungarian relations agree that her father, the influential China-expert, András Szilas has an extremely extensive network of contacts. He was involved with a number of businesses with a Chinese background, and he also has a good relationship with the Fidesz government.

Cecília Szilas, who has a degree in sinology and economics – the former one from ELTE, and the latter from BGE – and speaks fluent Chinese, moved up quickly at the embassy: In 2012 she became deputy ambassador, and in 2014, she was promoted to being ambassador. According to articles published during that time, her husband was working as the representative of the pharmaceutical company Innomed in Beijing at the time.

In 2017, due to her pregnancy, Szilas resigned from her post and was followed by the unusually young Máté Pesti as ambassador. According to reports, the choice of her successor was affected by the fact that Imre Pesti, the father of the new ambassador, and Fidesz MP had a good relationship with András Szilas.

After her maternity leave, in August 2018, Cecília Szilas returned as Deputy State Secretary for Eastern Relations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (KKM). She was mostly responsible for Chinese and Russian-connected issues, and filled the position until her resignation in March 2019. Before being appointed Senior Advisor to the PM, her career temporarily took a direction away from politics, when she became security director at ISD Dunaferr, and joined the leadership of the Hungarian Iron and Steel Industry Association as Deputy Director for Government Relations. Dunaferr has not responded to our queries relating to their employment of Szilas, nor those about her being targeted with Pegasus.

Based on numerous press reports, Dunaferr seems to be an extremely problematic company, with Ukrainian and Russian circles fighting for control over it.

It was during her time working there that Cecíllia Szilas was first targeted with the Pegasus spyware. When asked whether she was involved in things which would have made her a target during her time at Dunaferr, Szilas did not respond. She also refused to comment on when exactly she was asked to be the Prime Minister’s Senior Advisor, and whether she was subjected to further national security screening afterwards.

“Cecília Szilas served as Senior Political Advisor at the Prime Minister’s Office between September 1st, 2019 and August 30th, 2021 as a political servant.” – states the response sent to Direkt36 by the Prime Minister’s Office.

According to a source which had taken part in official negotiations with them within that period, Szilas was part of the team of foreign policy advisors lead by János Balla (former ambassador to Moscow), where she was responsible for the China portfolio. Balla had officially become Orbán’s senior foreign policy advisor after his predecessor, József Czukor took the seat as director of the Information Authority (IH).

It was just before the appointment of Szilas that the relationship between Hungary and China had become even closer than before. Chinese Foreign Minister, Vang Ji visited Budapest for two days in July 2019 and as Direkt36 later disclosed, it was then that the agreement about Fudan had been made with the Orbán government.

According to a document from the Ministry for Innovation and Technology, during his negotiations, Vang Ji “treated the establishment of Fudan University’s Hungarian campus as a flagship project – equal in importance to the construction of the Budapest-Belgrade railway line.”

According to the report published on kormany.hu, at the end of October 2019, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán “received the delegation of the Chinese Fudan University, which is looking to establish a campus in Hungary”, where Hszü Ning-seng, the Rector of Fudan “informed the head of the Hungarian government about the institution’s operation and plans.” On the official photo of the negotiation which was held at the former Carmelite Monastery, Cecília Szilas is seated directly to the right of the Prime Minister.

Szilas, seated next to the Prime Minister. Photo: Kormany.hu
Szilas, seated next to the Prime Minister. Photo: Kormany.hu

Last year, Direkt36 found out what these negotiations were actually about: the Fudan project is a gigantic, 540 billion forint campus construction deal. The project would be realized via a loan from China, the costs of which would be borne by Hungarian taxpayers. Officially, the university would be established by a foundation. It was this foundation’s board of trustees that Szilas joined in August 2021, at the time when she left her post as senior advisor. The president of the board of trustees is government minister László Palkovics.

It was with the intent to stop this foundation from going forward that Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Budapest initiated a referendum. By the middle of January 2022 the opposition parties collected 235 000 signatures in support of this step, which is in theory enough for calling a referendum.

This article is part of Telex's partnership with Direkt36.hu.