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Enquiry commission issues notice to Rahul Gandhi and others in Pegasus probe

Prior to setting up its own parallel expert committee, the Supreme Court had halted proceedings of the Bengal commission.

Political analyst Prashant Kishor, Congress politician Rahul Gandhi, and Amnesty International are among the many who were served notices by the Justice Lokur and Justice Bhattacharya Commission of Inquiry that was set up by the West Bengal government to probe the Pegasus spyware controversy. In total, 21 entities and persons were served notices to appear before the commission, according to a document uploaded on the Commission’s website.

Out of the 21, only five have responded to the notices so far, including journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Citizen Lab.

Kishor, whose phone was confirmed to have been hacked by the spyware, will physically depose before the commission on November 30. Internet Freedom Foundation’s executive director Apar Gupta was scheduled to be present virtually before the commission on November 29. In the following days, RJS Chima and Sandeep Dasgupta will also depose before the commission.

All those who were served notices

The first notice was served by the Commission on November 23 to the following —

  • MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan: Venu and Vardarajan are founding editors of The Wire which was part of an international consortium of media organisations that was the first to report on potential targets (including 300 Indians) of Pegasus surveillance by clients of the NSO group.
  • Paranjoy Guha Thakurta: Journalist Thakurta’s phone was among those infected with Pegasus spyware, The Wire report said.
  • SNM Abidi: Journalist who was also among those who were confirmed to be hacked by Pegasus, according to a report by the Wire.
  • Prashant Kishor: Kishor‘s phone was also confirmed to have been hacked by Pegasus.
  • Abhishek Banerjee: Trinamool Congress politician and nephew of West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, Abhishek’s number was listed as a potential target
  • Tony Jesudasan: Reliance ADA Group’s corporate communication chief Tony Jesudasan and his wife’s numbers also figured in the list in 2018.
  • Venkat Rao Posina: Dassault Aviation’s India representative Venkata Rao Posina developed a “reputation for ferociously defending the Rafale deal to the point of apparently getting into verbal altercations with journalists on Twitter”. His number was included in the leaked database between 2018 and 2019.
  • Harmanjit Nagi: Nagi, who is head of the French energy firm EDF, was “a significant choice” for snooping because he was a member of Emmanuel Macron’s official delegation during the French president’s visit to India in the 2018-2019 period.
  • Pratyush Kumar: Boeing India boss Kumar‘s number appeared in the leaked database of potential targets of Pegasis at different periods of time in 2018 and 2019, The Wire report said.
  • Anjani Kumar: Kumar is a Delhi-based labour rights activist who was a potential target of the spyware, according to a New Indian Express report.
  • Shiv Gopal Mishra: Railway union leader Shiv Gopal Mishra was also a potential target.
  • Rajeshwar Singh and Abha Singh: Singh is the sister of Rajeshwar Singh, a senior Enforcement Directorate Officer who was a possible target of Pegasus. Rajeshwar led several high profile investigations such as the 2G spectrum case, Aircel-Maxis case, and so on.
  • Hany Babu: The phone number of Professor Hany Babu who along with eight activists, was arrested for their involvement in the Elgar Parishad case also figured in the list of potential targets.
  • Rahul Gandhi: The Congress politician’s number was also among potential targets of the spyware. However, Gandhi during an interview claimed that his phone “isn’t a potential target, it is tapped”.
  • Rakesh Asthana: Senior CBI official Asthana along with another CBI official AK Shama, and agency chief Alok Sharma figured in the list as potential targets
  • Rakesh Tiwari: The number of Tiwari, who is the current president of the Bihar Circket Association was added to the database in 2018, according to The Wire.
  • Amnesty International and Citizen Lab: Amnesty International’s Security Lab, provided technical support to the Pegasus Project. University of  Toronto’s Citizen Lab conducted a peer review of Amnesty’s findings.
  • Chief Secretary West Bengal government

Apart from this, there were a number of people who submitted information without being served any notice, and the commission also served second notices to a few people.

Scope and functions of the commission

The commission was formed on July 26, 2021, under sub-section 1 and 2 of section 3 of the Commission of Inquiry Act 1952, as per the public notice. The commission also has to submit a report on its findings on the matter to the West Bengal government within six months or more.

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In the notice, the committee says it has been formed to investigate the “facts and circumstances related to reports that the mobile telephones of several police officials, politicians, MLA’s, journalists, activists, members of the judiciary, members associated with the judicial services, and other eminent personalities  in the state of West of Bengal were illegally intercepted.”

The notice further enlists the terms of reference provided for the commission as mentioned below:

  1. Whether interception occurred: To enquire into whether any incidences of reported interception have occurred.
  2. Who was involved: To enquire into the state and non-state actors who were involved in such reported interception.
  3. What mechanism was used: To enquire into the mechanism and/or spyware and/or malware that were being used to effectuate such reported interception.
  4. Whether Pegasus was used: To enquire into whether any software such as Pegasus of NSO Group Technologies located at Herzliya, Israel, and/or any spyware and/or malware of any other organisation had been in use and/or currently being used to conduct such reported interception.
  5. What happened to the data: To enquire into the events leading to the occurrence of the incidences of interception, and the information that has been collected, altered, stored, or used and the possession, storage, and further collection and use, of such information pertaining to such interception in the hands of state actors and non-state actors
  6. Whether there are any precursors: To investigate into the circumstances including provocations, instigations from any persons/group of persons, if any, leading to the reported interception.
  7. Who was affected: To enquire into the details of the victims and/or persons affected;
  8. Role of those involved in interception: To enquire into the role of other authorities and/or State and/or non- State actors in such interception.
  9. Whether it is legal: If such reported interception is found to be true, to enquire into whether State/non-State actors can, without any express legal provision and/or judicial oversight, carry out the reported interception.
  10. Whether privacy been breached: If such reported interception is found to be true whether such right to privacy of the category of individuals has been affected;
  11. Investigating any connected matters: To examine any other matter or facts relevant to, ancillary or incidental or connected with its subject of inquiry including the above questions which the committee may deem fit and proper to investigate

Supreme Court’s expert committee also probing Pegasus in India

It is important to note that while the Lokur Commission is conducting its own investigation, a Pegasus probe by the SC-appointed expert committee is also underway.

The committee includes:

  • Justice RV Ravindran, who will oversee its functioning:
  • Alok Joshi, former IPS officer
  • Dr. Sundeep Oberoi, Chairman, Sub Committee of International Organisation of Standardisation of International Electro-Technical Commission

It also has three technical members:

  • Dr. Naveen Kumar Choudhary, National Forensic Science Univerisity
  • Dr. Prabhakaran from Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Kerala
  • Dr. Ashwini Anil Gupte

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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