New Delhi: Three senior retired top police officers on August 5 condemned the findings of the Pegasus Project on the possible and confirmed surveillance of several journalists, social activists, politicians and others.
They also said that the exposé has revealed that the grounds on which the 16 academics, lawyers and activists were arrested in the Elgar Parishad case could be false.
“After the Pegasus reveal, the Bhima Koregaon case should be looked at in a new light,” said one of the speakers.
The accused in the Bhima Koregaon case have been in jail for two years, awaiting trial. Jesuit priest, Father Stan Swamy, who was arrested under UAPA for what the National Investigation Agency claimed were Maoist links, passed away after testing positive for COVID-19 while in jail on July 5 this year. He had requested bail on medical grounds.
Soon after his death, a report by Arsenal Consulting, an American forensic agency, claimed that false evidence had been planted on the computer of activist Surendra Gadling, one of the 16 held in the Elgar Parishad case.
The Wire has reported that on the leaked database of numbers selected by a client of the NSO Group, that sells Pegasus, are prisoners’ rights activist Rona Wilson, academic Hany Babu, activist Vernon Gonsalves, academic and civil liberties activist Anand Teltumbde, retired professor Shoma Sen (her number is first selected in 2017), journalist and rights activist Gautam Navlakha, lawyer Arun Ferreira, and academic and activist Sudha Bharadwaj.
The press conference was moderated by Delhi University professor Apoorvanand, who said that the government should respond to the recent reports on the possible Pegasus targeting. “Our privacy is in danger, and we do not know who is accessing the information. The parliament is also not functioning as it should because the government refuses to give the opposition an answer,” he said.
Former IPS officer Julio Francis Ribeiro, who had been DGP of Punjab and Gujarat, said that no citizen should be charged for any crime “unfairly,” like in the Elgar Parishad case.
“No person should be charged and made to suffer wrongly. When I was in the police, sometimes it happened that people were incorrectly charged, but never with an ill intent. Trial would take place, and those people would be acquitted if the charges couldn’t be proved. We followed the healthy principle of not guilty until proven otherwise,” he said.
He added that those who might be wrongly charged with crimes they have not committed, may lose faith in the state as well as the judiciary.
Talking about the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which activists often say has been used to suppress voices of activists who oppose the government, he said, “UAPA punishes the person without the guilt of the person having been proven. This is unknown to the jurisprudence in advanced countries.”
Specifically on the Elgar Parishad case, he said, “Two events occurred that cast a shadow of doubt on the police version in the case. First, the Arsenal Consulting report, and secondly, the Pegasus reveals. Whether or not the Pegasus software was used to plant fake evidence in the accused devices should be thoroughly investigated.”
Further, he said that Father Stan Swamy would not have registered cases with the police if he was a “Maoist,” as Maoists do not believe in the state or the police.
Vikash Narain Rai, former DGP of Haryana police, said that with the Pegasus revelations, the Arsenal disclosure should be looked at more closely. He said that while spying or surveillance is a sovereign function of the state, planting evidence is an “outright crime.”
“Anyone, whether police or Intelligence Bureau, planting evidence is a criminal…[in this case] the suspicion becomes stronger because despite media hue and cry, NIA is not clearing it up,” he said.
“Even surveillance should not be done in an unauthorised manner. There are rules, a process and certain protocols that have to be followed. With more and more evidence, the suspicion that the state has become party to planting evidence in the accused devices has grown stronger,” he said, adding that it is imperative for agencies to investigate more in the case with fresh evidence in the picture.
Further, he added that Father Stan Swamy’s death occurred due to his deteriorating health conditions in a jail in Maharashtra, which comes under the state government. “The state government should also be held accountable for the poor conditions inside its jails. They should make an effort to make jails humane,” he said.
Sarwan Ram Darapuri, former IG of Police, Uttar Pradesh, said that spying and surveillance are the state’s rights and authority, referring to the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, section 5 of which specifies the power of the government to take possession of licensed telegraphs and to order interception of messages.
However, there are certain conditions which need to be met to get permission to spy over somebody, he said.
“The agency or the police need to provide evidence of guilt by the concerned person and prove that their conduct may be a threat to the country’s safety, or trying to damage the nation’s relationship with other friendly countries, or an attempt to hamper public order,” he said.
There is another limitation, he said. “This can only be done for a limited time period. The permissions have to be reviewed from time to time. And even if interception may be allowed, inserting spyware into somebody’s device, planting evidence or hacking are still crimes,” he added.
Further, he said that the incarceration of the Elgar Parishad accused cannot be justified, as the primary evidence on the basis of which they have been arrested is doubtful in the first place.
Giving his own example from 2019 when he was arrested, he said, “During anti-CAA violence, I had put up a Facebook post saying ‘Save citizenship,’ which the police believe was ‘instigation.’ They arrested me afterwards. In another post, I had condemned the violence, but that didn’t seem important to the police.”
The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Read all our coverage here.