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India’s highest court on Wednesday appointed an independent committee to investigate allegations that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government used Israeli military spyware Pegasus to spy on sitting MPs, judges, journalists and activists.

The Supreme Court order came in response to multiple petitions filed by journalists, rights activists and opposition politicians asking for an investigation into charges of illegal government surveillance.

The court on Wednesday criticized the Modi government for using national security as an excuse not to disclose information, and also rejected the government’s request to set up an expert panel, saying it “would violate judicial principle. established against prejudice ”.

“The violation of the right to privacy, to freedom of expression, as alleged in the pleadings, must be examined,” said NV Ramana, Chief Justice of India. “The state cannot get a free pass every time raising national security concerns. National security cannot be the scarecrow that the judiciary shies away from, simply because of its evocation. “

While the Modi government “unequivocally” denied all allegations of illegal surveillance in July, the government, in its affidavit submitted to the court, did not categorically say whether it was using Israeli equipment to spy, citing security. national.

The court said it had given Mr. Modi’s government “all the time necessary to disclose all information” regarding these allegations since 2019. “However, only a limited affidavit has been filed, shedding no light,” said said Judge Ramana.

The judge was referring to the WhatsApp revelation in 2019 that journalists and activists in India were targeted using Pegasus spyware. The government also dismissed the allegations at the time.

The court-appointed committee will be chaired by retired Supreme Court Judge RV Raveendran and will include three cybersecurity experts. He was asked to submit his report by the end of the year.

The committee was also tasked with determining whether the government or its agencies acquired the Pegasus spyware and used it on Indian citizens for surveillance purposes. It is also to make recommendations on the adoption of laws and procedures to protect the privacy of Indian citizens and suggest ways to raise grievances in cases of suspected espionage.

In July, an investigation by an international media consortium found that more than 50,000 phones were being targeted using Pegasus.

According to the thread, which focused on the Indian part of the list, the database included 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers, including those of ministers, opposition leaders, a sitting judge and more than 40 journalists, activists and businessmen.

While Israeli firm NSO Group said it sold the software only to “approved government agencies” for terrorist monitoring, it did not disclose whether India was a client.

The Indian government has neither confirmed nor denied that it is a client of the NSO Group, but ministers have denied the espionage allegations. On July 19, IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw told the Indian parliament that illegal surveillance was not possible in India. These allegations had “no concrete basis or associated truth,” he said.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, welcomed the court order on Wednesday. Mr Gandhi, whose number was also on the list of people believed to be under surveillance, said the opposition felt “justified” by the order.

“We protested, but no response. We have shut down parliament, but we still haven’t got a response. Now our position is justified. So our questions remain the same, ”Gandhi said.

He added that the opposition will push for a new debate in the Indian parliament. “The BJP surely won’t want this discussion, but we will push it. The case is currently before the court and the court will take it forward, but we will be pushing for a debate in parliament. “

The Pegasus Line rocked the Indian parliament during debates when the news was first released, where MPs from opposition parties tore up papers and waved slogans demanding responses from Mr Modi’s government.

Siddharth Varadarajan, Founder-Editor of The Wire, also welcomed the government’s decision.

“A huge rationale for Project Pegasus, which The Wire, Forbidden Stories and our global media partners have jointly reported! He tweeted. “Modi govt [government] chose the path of non-cooperation in the face of court questions. The CJI bench drew the right conclusion. Let the investigation begin!

Additional reports by agencies

The Independent Gt

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