Elgaar case: Pegasus exposé raises unjust detention cry
The families of the Elgaar Parishad-Maoist links detainees and one of their lawyers have said the new revelations about targeted surveillance have vindicated their stand that the prolonged imprisonment of the 15 surviving accused is unjust.
An international exposé of the use of the spyware Pegasus — developed by Israeli company NSO and sold only to governments — has found that the mobile numbers of several Elgaar Parishad accused were on a list of those selected for surveillance by an unidentified client of NSO.
Such “tampering”, the relatives of the Elgaar accused say, strengthens the suspicion that the “evidence” against the detainees was planted on their electronic devices — as already suggested by American digital forensics firm Arsenal Consulting in the case of two accused.
Among the surveillance targets named by the exposé are academics Hany Babu MT, Vernon Gonsalves, Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen; activists Gautam Navlakha and Rona Wilson; and lawyers Arun Ferreira and Sudha Bharadwaj.
The numbers of several relatives and suspected associates of the Elgaar detainees too were on the list.
They include: “Varavara Rao’s daughter Pavana; lawyer Surendra Gadling’s wife Minal Gadling, his associate lawyers Nihalsingh Rathod and Jagadish Meshram, one of his former clients Maruti Kurwatkar, who was charged in multiple cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), incarcerated for over four years and later released on bail; Bharadwaj’s lawyer Shalini Gera; Teltumbde’s friend Jaison Cooper, a Kerala-based rights activist; scholar of the Naxalite movement and Bastar-based lawyer Bela Bhatia; one of the oldest members of the Kabir Kala Manch cultural group Rupali Jadhav; and tribal rights activist Mahesh Raut’s close associate and lawyer Lalsu Nagoti,” a report in The Wire news website, which participated in the exposé, said.
Gonsalves’s wife Susan Abraham — who is also a lawyer for Sen, Teltumbde and two fellow detainees: author Sudhir Dhawale and the Kabir Kala Manch’s Jyoti Jagtap — told The Telegraph: “It is absolutely shocking that this should have happened and must still be happening. Of course, this has led to Vernon’s arrest and continued incarceration for almost three years now without a trial. This is completely unlawful and unjust. This form of surveillance web that we all are trapped in must be snapped.”
Earlier this year, Arsenal had found that “evidence” had been planted on the computers of Delhi-based activist Wilson and Nagpur-based lawyer Gadling, both of whom are in a Navi Mumbai jail awaiting trial in the case.
However, both the National Investigating Agency (NIA) and the Maharashtra police have opposed Wilson’s plea to Bombay High Court to quash the case.
The NIA told the court that “documents which are not part of the chargesheet cannot be relied upon”, while the state police argued in court earlier this month that the accused can challenge the evidence only when it comes to trial.
Babu’s wife Jenny Rowena, who teaches at Delhi University, told this newspaper: “It shows how unsafe our devices are and how unethical the government is in tampering with them. Yet, the courts have taken the documents found in the laptops of the accused as prima facie evidence. The Arsenal report shows (the computers have been) tampered with and in the light of these disclosures we must take it for granted that the government can tamper with our devices.
“The courts must refuse to take the documents in the computers of the accused in this case as prima facie evidence and give them bail as soon as possible without us having to prove (the purported evidence) is fake after years of incarceration, as it happens in UAPA cases.”
Last year, rights group Amnesty International and the University of Toronto’s Internet watchdog Citizen Lab had revealed that in 2019, a coordinated spyware operation was used to target at least nine human rights defenders, eight of whom are campaigning for the release of the Elgaar case accused.
Also in 2019, Pegasus was discovered to have been used to spy on human rights defenders by penetrating their mobile phones via WhatsApp.
Teltumbde’s wife Rama Ambedkar-Teltumbde — who happens to be B.R. Ambedkar’s granddaughter — told this newspaper: “We already knew of his devices being compromised with Pegasus through Citizen Lab way back in 2019. The new stories certainly expose a great threat in today’s India against dissenters and the very fabric of our Constitution at large. It is strange that on one hand the Arsenal report is being dismissed for being foreign, but we (are using) foreign technology to snoop on our own countrymen.”
Navlakha was also grilled in the money-laundering case against investigative portal Newsclick. His partner Sahba Husain said: “First he was arrested (in the Elgaar case), now this ED case is also being brought…. When so much material shows planting of proof and surveillance, why does the government not investigate if they are not afraid…. Not just the Centre, but even the Maharashtra government said ‘no’ to the Arsenal evidence in the high court. They should have ordered a special investigation team probe.”
The NIA reports to the central government, which is under the BJP. Maharashtra has a coalition government of the Shiv Sena, NCP and the Congress. The home department is helmed by an NCP minister, with a minister of state each from the Congress and the Sena.
Sahba Husain said: “The lives, liberty and families of those in jail are being made to suffer. Six of them got Covid; some went to hospital and one died…. This is complete lawlessness. It is only those behind bars who are abiding by the law. Our only hope now is the judiciary.”
Varavara’s daughter P. Pavana said: “In 2019, WhatsApp told me that my phone had been hacked. As the daughter of an activist, I have known there is surveillance on us. But today, even ministers and an election commissioner — basically anyone who does not have exactly the same opinion as the people at the top — are being spied upon. This is clearly an attack on democracy.”
She added: “The response of the ministers in Parliament almost accepts the charge (of spying). They could have merely ordered an inquiry but no, like in other cases they want to make the victims out as the accused. In (the Elgaar Parishad case), those who spoke in favour of the victims are now accused of the violence. Be it the Delhi riots or the attack on JNU — the victims are booked by the police.”
Several academics, lawyers, rights activists and writers have been arrested or interrogated in an investigation into the alleged Maoist links to an Ambedkarite event — the Elgaar Parishad — on December 31, 2017, that was followed the next day by caste clashes that claimed one life.
One of the accused, Parkinson’s-stricken Father Stan Swamy, died of multiple ailments that his friends and supporters have blamed on poor treatment of a Covid infection he had contracted in jail.
The case expanded into a purge of “urban Naxals”, a term used by Right-wing commentators for people they accuse of clandestinely working for the banned CPI Maoist. The case was transferred from Maharashtra police to the NIA soon after the BJP lost power in the state.
The France-based Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International’s Security Lab have accessed records of the NSO Group. These were analysed by The Wire news website in partnership with 15 other global media outlets. The investigation led to the exposé.