Pegasus: Opposition demands probe into snooping row, Shah sacking; UN says issue 'extremely alarming'

The Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, said Shah should immediately resign as he does not deserve to occupy the position he is holding.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah. (File Photo | PTI)
Union Home Minister Amit Shah. (File Photo | PTI)

NEW DELHI:  Accusing the government of ‘treason’, the opposition parties on Monday demanded the resignation of Union Home Minister Amit Shah and a probe into the ‘role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’ in the Pegasus spying row, inviting a sharp rejoinder from the BJP which accused them of orchestrating conspiracies against the government. 

The Congress mounted an offensive charging the government with compromising on national security.

The party said it would take on board all opposition parties over the issue and decide whether to ask for a judicial or parliamentary probe into the matter.

The Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, said Shah should immediately resign as he does not deserve to occupy the position he is holding.

The government has not only attacked freedom of speech, but also the fundamental rights of people, he alleged. Congress spokesperson R S Surjewala said, “The person responsible for deployment of this illegal spyware Pegasus is no less than the home minister, who must be sacked.”

The CPM said it had raised in Parliament two years ago how this dangerous spyware was being used in India, as revealed by WhatsApp.

“With these revelations, it is clear that this government has engaged NSO for such surveillance against its own citizens. The central government must come clean on what is its engagement with NSO (the Israeli tech firm that created the spyware), what are the terms and how much our public funds have been paid for this,” the party said in a statement.

The Trinamool Congress said it will raise the issue in Parliament.

“It is a serious issue and the minister in his statement in the House does not deny that the government was using the software. We will raise this issue in Parliament,” said TMC Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’ Brien.

Party MP Sukhendu Sekhar Ray has given a notice in the Rajya Sabha under Rule 267 to discuss the Pegasus 'snooping' issue, the party said on Monday.

Opposition parties on Monday hit out at the government over the alleged phone-tapping of prominent personalities in the country using Israeli spyware, Pegasus, and demanded an independent judicial or parliamentary committee probe.

"Trinamool's Sukhendu Sekhar Ray has given a (Rule) 267 notice for Pegasus," the party said.

Rule 267 gives opposition MPs an opportunity to give a written notice to suspend regular business in the Upper House and seek a discussion on a burning issue.

Addressing a press conference, senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad also questioned the credentials of those behind the story, alleging that The Wire, the news portal which broke it in India, had been earlier associated with stories which have been found to be "incorrect" while Amnesty International has a declared "anti-India" agenda in many ways.

Those who broke the story themselves said that the presence of a particular number in the database does not confirm that it is infected with Pegasus, he said while questioning the timing of the story coming as it did a day before Parliament's Monsoon session began on Monday.

Noting that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is also being mentioned as a target of the alleged snooping, Prasad said sarcastically that his every comment is on Twitter everyday.

"He keeps sharing his wisdom with the country. Is there any need to know anything more," the BJP leader said in a lighter vein.

He also brushed aside a question on the Congress' demands for Home Minister Amit Shah's resignation and probe against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and accused the opposition party of hitting a "new low" in making baseless allegations in a manner that was bereft of any political propriety.

With the Congress "shrinking and losing", the entire row is timed to disrupt Parliament and build a baseless agenda, he said and also raked up snooping allegations levelled against the opposition party in the past, including a row involving then Union ministers Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram.

He said an RTI reply in 2013 had revealed that around 9,000 phones and 500 email accounts were monitored every month by the Congress-led UPA government at the time and even recently its dispensation in Rajasthan was allegedly involved in phone tapping.

"One can go on and on about Congress' history of infringing upon people's privacy and freedom," he said.

Prasad said, "The BJP strongly refutes and condemns the baseless and bereft of political propriety comments levelled by Congress against the BJP. This is a new low in the political discourse of a party that has ruled India for over 50 years."

Targeting the sources behind the story, he said The Wire was also behind the Judge Loya story.

The Supreme Court had also commented on this, and it was all found to be a "lie", he said.

Judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya, who presided over the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case, had died of heart attack but some reports had questioned the official cause of his demise.

The Supreme Court had also dismisses pleas for an independent probe into the matter.

Prasad added, "Can we deny that bodies like Amnesty had a declared anti-India agenda in many ways? They withdrew from India when we asked them about their foreign funding as per law."

Claiming that there is a conspiracy to target the Modi government as India develops and burnishes its credentials globally under the prime minister's leadership, he wondered if some people have become "supari agents" (hired agents) for such "international conspiracies".

He noted that NSO, the Israeli company that owns Pegasus spyware, has said that over 45 western countries have used the technology and asked as to why India was being targeted.

The company itself has trashed the reports about the snooping, he said.

The government has been similarly targeted in the past with baseless allegations about threat to India's diversity and multiculturalism, he said.

He also asked the Congress to not run away from debate in Parliament, and said that the government has made it clear that it is willing to discuss any issue.

Prasad said, "Our IT Minister confirmed today that for lawful interceptions of electronic communication can only be made as per relevant rules under provisions of Sec 5(2) of Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 & Sec 69 of Information Technology Act 2000.

Any form of illegal surveillance isn't possible with checks & balances in our laws & robust institutions."

Meanwhile, Congress veteran Digvijaya Singh on Monday said he managed to escape the alleged phone tapping using Israeli spyware Pegasus because he had stopped using his old mobile number which was mentioned in a letter related to the Elgar Parishad-Maoist links case.

The Rajya Sabha MP said he had already raised the issue of alleged snooping on certain individuals through the Pegasus spyware in December 2019.

"I was not on WhatsApp on the number they had mentioned in the letter from one Naxalite to another other and the case registered against me in Pune. Fortunately for me, I had stopped using that phone (number) for a long time, therefore I could not be implicated," Singh told reporters here.

The former chief minister was replying to a question whether he suspects that even his phone may have been compromised in the Pegasus spyware case.

In 2018, the Pune police had seized a letter in connection with the Elgar Parishad probe referring to a mobile number purportedly belonging to Singh.

The letter, seized in nationwide raids, was made part of a chargesheet filed against activists arrested for alleged Maoist links in connection with the Elgar Parishad case.

Singh was referring to the same letter.

TMC national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee Monday taunted Union Home Minister Amit Shah over allegations of snooping against him, saying Shah was unable to save his face from the humiliation of Bengal assembly poll defeat despite spying on him.

He mockingly asked the senior BJP leader to come back well prepared for 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

The Trinamool Congress also lamented the development and termed the allegations of snooping on Banerjee and poll strategist Prashant Kishor as "an attack on democracy".

"Two Minutes of SILENCE for the SORE LOSERS! Despite ALLIES like ED, CBI, NIA, IT, ECI, @BJP4India's money + might and #PegasusSpying Mr @AmitShah couldn't save his face in #BengalElections2021. Please COME Prepared with Better RESOURCES in 2024!," Abhishek Banerjee tweeted.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Monday hit out at the opposition Congress and international organisations for suggesting that the government was involved in surveillance of phones of politicians, journalists and others, saying such "obstructers" and "disrupters" will not be able to derail India's development trajectory with their conspiracies.

Despite putting its best efforts, the saffron party failed in its "mission Bengal" and faced defeat in the hands of Mamata Banerjee, who formed government in the state with a thumping majority.

The TMC leadership said the revelations prove that the saffron party is suffering from "fear-psychosis" over rise of Abhishek as a national leader.

"This is a black day for democracy. This is shameful that the Union government is using spyware to snoop on the phones of politicians, journalists, activists. Even youth leaders like Abhishek Banerjee are also not spared; our poll strategist Prashant Kishors phone was hacked."

"This only reflects the authoritarian mindset of this government. The union government should come clean on it. We condemn it," senior TMC leader Sougata Roy told PTI.

Echoing him, TMC state general secretary Kunal Ghosh said, the revelations reflect the "fear psychosis" of Abhishek Banerjee that the BJP is suffering from.

Congress leader P Chidambaram on Monday took a swipe at IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw over his statement in Lok Sabha on the alleged illegal surveillance using Pegasus software and said it is unfortunate that the minister has started his innings on the "wrong foot".

In a series of tweets, Chidambaram said the minister should answer if the government acquired the Pegasus software/spyware.

"NSO Group, the owner of Pegasus, has said that 'NSO sells its technologies solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments.' It is unfortunate that Minister Vaishnaw has started his innings on the wrong foot," he tweeted.

"The Minister should answer a simple question: Did the government acquire the Pegasus software/spyware?" he added.

Vaishnaw, in a suo motu statement in Lok Sabha, categorically rejected the allegations of snooping on politicians, journalists and others using Pegasus software, and asserted that illegal surveillance was not possible with checks and balances in the country's laws.

He said the media reports on alleged snooping published a day before the start of the Monsoon Session of Parliament "cannot be a coincidence" and stressed that there is "no substance" behind the sensationalism.

"The press reports of 18th July 2021 also appear to be an attempt to malign the Indian democracy and its well-established institutions," Vaishnaw said in his first statement in Parliament as a minister.

The minister, however, did not specify whether the Indian government was using Pegasus spyware developed by Israeli company NSO.

Chidambaram said, "In his statement the Minister has omitted to quote the crucial part of Pegasus' statement. The services that are 'openly available to anyone, anywhere, and anytime' refer to HLR Lookup services, not to Pegasus."

The former Union minister was referring to the statement given by the Israeli company to a group of media organisations that broke the story across the globe.

The Congress has demanded a thorough, independent probe into the matter and immediate sacking of Home Minister Amit Shah.

The NCP also sought a probe into the alleged phone tapping row and demanded action against those responsible for the act.

Party spokesman and Maharashtra cabinet minister Nawab Malik said only an inquiry will establish which agency of the central government allegedly hacked the phones of journalists, ministers and industrialists.

More than 300 verified mobile phone numbers, including of two serving ministers, over 40 journalists, three opposition leaders and one sitting judge, besides scores of business persons and activists in India could have been targeted for hacking through the Israeli spyware sold only to government agencies, an international media consortium had reported on Sunday.

Malik told reporters here that Pegasus has made it clear that it provided the software only to governments and not private individuals.

"If the software wasn't sold to private individuals, which agency of the central government hacked the phones of journalists, ministers, social workers, judges and industrialists," he asked.

Malik said the Modi government should explain if the alleged phone tapping was done for surveillance.

Action should be taken against those responsible, he added.

Earlier in the day, NCP ally Shiv Sena said Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah should clarify on the issue of alleged snooping of several people, including journalists, through the Israeli spyware Pegasus.

This shows the country's "government and administration is weak", Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut told reporters in New Delhi.

Extremely alarming: UN high commissioner for human rights on Pegasus snooping

The apparent use of the Pegasus software to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and others in a variety of countries is "extremely alarming" and the States concerned should take steps to protect against such "invasions" of privacy, the UN high commissioner for human rights said on Monday.

Politicians, rights activists and journalists were among those targeted in several countries including India, with a phone spyware sold to various governments by an Israeli firm, according to an international media consortium.

In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said governments should immediately "cease their own use of surveillance technologies" in ways that violate human rights, and should take concrete actions to protect against such "invasions" of privacy by regulating the distribution, use and export of surveillance technology created by others.

"Revelations regarding the apparent widespread use of the Pegasus software to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and others in a variety of countries are extremely alarming, and seem to confirm some of the worst fears about the potential misuse of surveillance technology to illegally undermine people's human rights," Bachelet said.

Media reports on Sunday claimed that spyware Pegasus was used to conduct surveillance on about 300 Indians, including ministers, political leaders, government officials and journalists.

The Indian government has categorically rejected the attack on it by the opposition parties in the wake of the snooping row, saying attempts were being made to "malign" Indian democracy.

Bachelet said various parts of the UN Human Rights system have repeatedly raised serious concerns about the dangers of authorities using surveillance tools from a variety of sources.

"Use of surveillance software has been linked to arrest, intimidation and even killings of journalists and human rights defenders. Reports of surveillance also have the invidious effect of making people censor themselves through fear," she said.

Bachelet said journalists and human rights defenders play an indispensable role in societies, and when they are silenced, everyone suffers.

"I would like to remind all states that surveillance measures can only be justified in narrowly defined circumstances, with a legitimate goal. And they must be both necessary and proportionate to that goal," she said.

Referring to the reports, the UN high commissioner for human rights said, "If the recent allegations about the use of Pegasus are even partly true, then that red line has been crossed again and again with total impunity."

She said companies involved in the development and distribution of surveillance technologies are responsible for avoiding harm to human rights and they need to take immediate steps to mitigate and remedy the harms their products are causing or contributing to.

"In addition to immediately stopping their own role in violations of human rights, States have a duty to protect individuals from abuses of the right to privacy by companies," she said.

"One key step to effectively prevent abuse of surveillance technology is for States to require by law that the companies involved meet their human rights responsibilities, are much more transparent in relation to the design and use of their products, and put in place more effective accountability mechanisms," she added.

The UN high commissioner said that these reports also confirm the urgent need to better regulate the sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology and ensure strict oversight and authorisation.

"Without human rights-compliant regulatory frameworks there are simply too many risks that these tools will be abused to intimidate critics and silence dissent," she said.

"Governments should immediately cease their own use of surveillance technologies in ways that violate human rights, and should take concrete actions to protect against such invasions of privacy by regulating the distribution, use and export of surveillance technology created by others," she added.

(With PTI Inputs)

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