Pegasus row: Paper snatching episode rocks Rajya Sabha as more names show up in the snooping list


By Express News Service

NEW DELHI: The Pegasus snoopgate continued to roil governments globally on Thursday, with French President Emmanuel Macron holding an emergency cybersecurity meeting to weigh action and rework security protocols after it emerged that his phone numbers figured among those that were potentially hacked.

In Mexico, reports said previous administrations from 2012 to 2018 had spent about $300 million to purchase the spyware from the NSO Group, an Israeli firm.

Back home, attempts by the Modi government to shake off charges of using the spyware became that much more difficult, with revelations that former CBI chief Alok Verma’s phone numbers were added to the list the day he was chucked out of the hot seat in 2018.

Interestingly, mobile numbers of his adversary Rakesh Asthana were added to the list an hour before Verma’s.

Meanwhile, Parliament continued to be in turmoil as both Houses witnessed sloganeering and disruptions.

ALSO READ | Industrialist Anil Ambani among potential Pegasus spyware targets: Report

The Rajya Sabha witnessed high drama as Trinamool member Shantanu Sen snatched a copy of a statement on the spyware from Electronics and Information Technology minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, tore it up and flung it towards the Chair.

Other Trinamool members did likewise and the House was adjourned for the day. Shortly thereafter, minister Hardeep Puri and Sen exchanged sharp words, forcing Marshals to intervene. Sen later said Puri verbally abused and was on the verge of assault before he was rescued.

The Centre is learnt to be planning a privilege motion against Sen. The Opposition wants a discussion on Pegasus with Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Home minister Amit Shah speaking on the matter.

There was no reaction yet from the minister on the issue.

Sources said the government will move a motion on Friday seeking suspension of Sen.

Union Minister V Muraleedharan is expected to move the motion, they said.

The sources also said some Opposition MPs “misbehaved” with members of the treasury benches, including a minister, even after the House was adjourned.

“We are approaching the Rajya Sabha chairman seeking action against them as their behaviour is a blow to parliamentary decorum,” said a Union minister, who did not wish to be named.

While BJP president J P Nadda accused the opposition of creating “obstacles” in the country’s development journey by disrupting Parliament to “save” its political existence, Union Minister Meenakshi Lekhi condemned the conduct of the opposition members as a “new low” in India’s parliamentary democracy.

Opposition parties have stalled proceedings in Parliament alleging the union government’s involvement in the alleged snooping following reports that nearly 300 mobile phone numbers including of journalists, activists, opposition leaders from India and even of union ministers figured in this list of potential snooping targets by Israel’s NSO group which sells its Pegasus spyware only to “vetted” governments and government agencies.

ALSO READ | All the allegations and blame should be at customer, not us: Pegasus spyware seller NSO

“This is not a story. This is a non-starter across the globe because based on a concocted, fabricated, evidence-less story, nobody does story. Because that story itself calls for forgery and defamation. Leaked data is an offence and that leads to further complications for people who base their stories on leaked data. it only happens in India,” Minister Lekhi told reporters.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee claimed that the alleged snooping using the Pegasus spyware was “worse than the Watergate scandal” which eruptedin the US during the Nixon presidency.

“Pegasus is worse than Watergate scandal; it is super emergency,” Banerjee told reporters in Kolkata.

An AICC statement said that Pradesh Congress Committees held protest marches in different states demanding an impartial inquiry monitored by the Supreme Court and the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah.

In the Rajya Sabha, the TMC, Congress and other opposition party members, who had earlier forced two adjournments of the proceedings, rushed to the well of the House as Minister Vaishnaw was called to make a statement on the snooping controversy.

Shantanu Sen snatched the papers from the hands of the minister, tore and flung them in the air, prompting the minister to stop making the statement after reading a few lines amid the ruckus and say he was laying a copy on the table of the House.

Deputy Chairman Harivansh asked the members to desist from unparliamentary behaviour, before adjourning the proceedings of the House for the day.

“Please do not adhere to this unparliamentary practice.”

“You do not want a discussion on an issue you have been agitated about. This is undemocratic,” Harivansh said.

He said the minister has laid the statement on the table of the House and asked if the MPs want to ask him any questions on that.

ALSO READ | Dalai Lama’s advisers, NSCN leaders listed as potential targets of Pegasus: Reports

But the opposition MPs continued to raise slogans against the snooping controversy.

The statement that the minister laid on the table of the House was similar to the one he had made on July 19 in the Lok Sabha, a day after the reports of alleged snooping emerged.

In the statement, Vaishnaw, whose phone number was among those listed as compromised by Washington Post, called the reports an “attempt to malign the Indian democracy and its well-established institutions”.

Amid the din, Vaishnaw implored all members of the House to “examine the issue on facts and logic”.

Narrating the sequence of events as it unfolded in the Rajya Sabha, TMC Chief Whip Sukhendu Sekhar Ray alleged that the Union communications and information technology minister’s statement was full of lies.

He said minutes after Sen snatched the paper from the minister’s hands, Vaishnaw was handed over another copy and he continued to read.

Soon after, the House was adjourned but not before the statement was tabled and considered as read.

“The minister’s statement was full of contradictions and white lies. So one of our members snatched and tore it,” Ray said.

The TMC alleged that after the House was adjourned and the live transmission was stopped, Union Minister Puri gesticulated at Sen ordering its MP to approach him.

“I was gheraoed by the BJP MPs,” Sen alleged.

The TMC maintained that it would continue to obstruct Parliament proceedings till the government agrees to a “structured discussion” on the issue of snooping using Israeli spyware Pegasus.

TMC’s Parliamentary party leader Derek O’Brien said not the Union IT minister, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi should reply to the opposition’s questions.

“Our straightforward question is, did you or did you not use the Pegasus spyware? We will not allow them to sweep the issue under the carpet,” he said.

Representatives of the Press Club of India, The Editors Guild of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Press Association, Delhi Union of Journalists along with some eminent media personalities demanded at a news conference that the government should launch a probe into the Pegasus spyware matter and come clean on the issue.

“We demand a Supreme Court monitored inquiry into the acts of surveillance. Media organisations will explore constitutional options for the safeguard of democracy and freedom of press,” the Press Club of India said in a statement.

ALSO READ | AASU head says not afraid of being spied on by Pegasus, fight against CAA to continue 

Minister Lekhi cited reports to claim that Amnesty International, the human rights group associated with Pegasus Project, has denied the existence of a list of potential targets of the alleged snooping.

Amnesty International, however, said in a statement that it “categorically stands” by the findings of the Pegasus Project and asserted that the data is irrefutably linked to potential targets of Israel-based NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.

The comments by Amnesty International came after some media reports quoting a few Israeli journalists said that the human rights group has claimed that it never said that the recently leaked phone numbers were specifically a list of numbers targeted by Pegasus spyware.

Uttar Pradesh Congress president Ajay Kumar Lallu and other party leaders were detained in Lucknow while trying to take out a silent march against the alleged snooping on party leader Rahul Gandhi, and were let off later after furnishing a personal bond.

Stand by it, says Amnesty

With the BJP trying to demolish the snoopgate list claiming it was fake, Amnesty International defended its findings.

“Amnesty categorically stands by the findings of the Pegasus Project, and that the data is irrefutably linked to potential targets of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware,” it said in a statement

Bid to distract attention

Rumours pushed on social media are intended to distract from the widespread unlawful targeting of journalists, activists and others, it added.

(With PTI Inputs)

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