Hearing a batch of pleas demanding an inquiry into the the Supreme Court on Thursday said the allegations appear “serious” and so the truth “should come out”.
Arguing that having to tackle so many writ petitions over the scandal has made it a “complicated” case for the court, a bench of chief justice NV Ramana and justice Surya Kant told the petitioners to provide copies of their pleas to the government so that they can respond.
Ramana added that the top court will consider the pleas together, not individually.
The petitioners include the Editors Guild of India, advocate ML Sharma, CPIM parliamentarian John Brittas, professor and activist Jagdeep Chokkar, and journalists N Ram, Sashi Kumar, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, SNM Abdi, Prem Shankar Jha, Rupesh Kumar Singh, Ipsa Shataksi. The last five are named in the list of targets or potential targets of the Israeli spyware.
‘Why did no one approach the court in 2019?’
Appearing for Ram and Kumar at the virtual hearing, senior advocate Kapil Sibal argued that Pegasus is a “rogue” technology whose use is “an assault on the privacy, dignity and values of our republic”.
Ramana remarked that if the news reports about the Pegasus snooping are true, then the allegations are serious. He noted, though, that news reports about snooping using the Israeli spyware first came out in May 2019 and asked why no efforts were made at the time to tackle it. “I don't know, suddenly it has been reported now. The persons who have filed the petitions are very educated, reputed persons. They should have done more focussed and hard work on it,” he said.
Sibal responded that they did not know the extent of the snooping in 2019.
Senior advocate Meenakshi Arora, appearing for Brittas, added that one reason why the scandal did not receive much attention for over two years was that the then had “categorically” declared “to the best of his knowledge” that “there was no unauthorized interception". “If you have said in 2019 that you have not done it and now it’s known that it has been done, there is a need to investigate,” Arora argued.
Pointing out that NSO, the Isreali maker of Pegasus, has it sells the spyware to only government agencies, Sibal said, “This is exactly why the petitions have been filed. We have to ask the government to give us the facts. How did these names come up? The government has to answer. If the government of India knew this was happening, why did they not take action against NSO? It’s a matter of national security. We don't have all the answers. Only the government can answer. Why did they keep quiet? Why did they not lodge an FIR? Let them come onboard and answer.”
To this, the court asked why the aggrieved petitioners did not file an FIR.
Rakesh Dwivedi, a senior advocate representing Abdi, replied that they have not filed a police complaint yet because it is a matter of “very wide dimensions”. “Ordinary individuals, writing on issues that concern the government, cannot be subjected to surveillance,” he said. “This is not a case of an individual's phone being bugged. It’s mass action. It’s a case where the Indian government should have taken action on its own.”
‘What’s there in your petition?’
Talking specifically about Sharma’s plea, the judges said they didn’t see the point of it. “I do not know why you filed the writ petition? Except newspaper cuttings, what is there in your petition?” Surya Kant asked Sharma. “You want us to collect the material and argue your case. This is not the way of filing a PIL.”
The judge noted that Sharma had sent a complaint to the CBI about the snooping on July 21 and filed the plea the next day. “You didn't even give them any time to respond,” he said.
Sharma responded that his plea was “not based on newspaper cuttings” but on the facts NSO has admitted to in the US court.
The bench, however, said they are “unable” to hear his petition.
The rest of the petitions will next be heard on August 10.