New Delhi: India was once again entangled in an ongoing political controversy in Mauritius after a political activist, recently released on bail, told a local court that he was reportedly approached by an Indian diplomat with a “proposition” a day before he was arrested.
Last year in July, the Indian Ocean island nation was rocked over allegations by the former head of Mauritius Telecom, Sherry Singh, that he was forced to give access to an Indian team to allegedly install a ‘device’ that could monitor internet traffic at a submarine cable landing station. It resulted in protests by the opposition and denials by the government, but eventually, the controversy faded away.
About eight months later, Mauritius’s close regional partner India is again in the middle of another political storm.
On November 4 last year, Bruneau Laurette, a well-known environmental activist and a vocal critic of the Pravind Jugnauth government, was arrested on drug possession charges after the police raided his residence and claimed to have found 40 kilograms of hashish.
Laurette claimed that he had been “framed” by the police due to his political activism. He was released on bail with several conditions on February 27 this year after the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) decided not to contest the local court’s order. The Commissioner of Police, Anil Kumar Dip, described the decision of the Office of the DPP as an “evil precedent”, with the police subsequently approaching the Supreme Court.
As part of his bail hearings, Laurette submitted an affidavit written in creole on February 23. The covering letter for the affidavit, which The Wire has seen, described the content as a “chronology of events resulting to my aforesaid arrest which amount to a political vendetta”.
On March 6, the local French language newspaper, L’Express, published a report that referred to Laurette’s claim in the affidavit of having an encounter with an Indian high commission official, just a day before the arrest in November last year.
The Wire contacted the Ministry of External Affairs regarding the Mauritian newspaper report, but there was no comment. The partner of Bruneau Laurette was also contacted regarding the affidavit, but she didn’t respond.
In the newspaper report, the Indian high commission official was identified based on an investigation.
However, the original 10-page affidavit, seen by The Wire, did not name the official, described by the Mauritian activist as an “advisor” with the Indian high commission.
“My arrest was strange as it happened the day following which I had a conversation and a meeting with an advisor from the Indian High Commission in Mauritius, during which I refused a proposal to work with the MSM government,” Laurette wrote in his affidavit, as per a rough translation.
Laurette said that the meeting was disclosed to the police when they interrogated him about his whereabouts after his arrest.
He claimed that the Indian embassy official asked why he didn’t work with the ruling MSM party and Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, noting that “government works with government”. “I replied, ‘I am not a kamikaze”, it’s a political suicide’.”
The discussion revolved around Laurette’s political career, as well as “what is going on in Agalega, the money that India gives to Mauritius and Pravind Jugnauth whenever the latter asks for”.
Concerned about China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean, India has been increasing assistance to Mauritius, especially in infrastructure projects. In 2015, India signed an agreement to upgrade the military infrastructure at Agalega island, which led to questions about sovereignty among the opposition. In neighbouring Seychelles, a similar deal for Assumption island is shelved indefinitely due to local protests.
After that, Laurette wrote in his affidavit that he was offered a “proposition” to allegedly infiltrate the Chinese embassy.
“It was a question of how I could enter the Chinese embassy through a security firm which I may create by using my know-how in the matter, and how I could spy on the Chinese. Also on how I could quote for less (to get the contract) and how India will supplement the shortfall plus a huge profit. But I refused,” Laurette wrote in the affidavit.
Laurette’s case is front page news in Mauritius, with the media describing it as a “clash of institutions” due to the criticism of the public prosecutors by the government and police. Next Monday, the Supreme Court of Mauritius will hear a petition by the police against the decision of the DPP, claiming that there was no institutional consultation.
The Director of Public Prosecutions even lodged a criminal complaint against a pro-government social media-based news site for accusing him of being part of a “conspiracy” to free Laurette.
According to an explainer in L’Express, the fierce attacks against the DPP by “supporters of the government” is part of the ruling party’s attempt to “walk back” the former’s autonomy.
Meanwhile, Sherry Singh, the former member of Jugnauth’s inner circle who had alleged that an Indian technical team had illegally installed a ‘sniffing’ device at the landing station, welcomed Laurette to his newly-launched party on Tuesday.