NEW DELHI: It is “unbelievable” that the Centre is refusing to file a detailed affidavit on a batch of pleas seeking independent probe into the alleged Pegasus snooping row, one of the petitioners argued in the Supreme Court on Monday.
A bench headed by Chief Justice NV Ramana was told by senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for veteran journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar who have filed one of the pleas, that the government cannot tell the apex court to “shut your eyes”.
“This is unbelievable that the Government of India says we will not tell the court,” Sibal told the bench, also comprising justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli.
“The government cannot tell your lordships to shut your eyes and say we will do what we want and we will do it through an internal inquiry,” Sibal said, adding it is the bounden duty of the government to tell its citizens the factual position on the issue.
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During the hearing, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the government does not wish to file a detailed affidavit in the “larger national interest” on the pleas as such issues cannot be a subject matter of public discourse.
Sibal said the petitioners want to know whether Israeli firm NSO’s spyware Pegasus was used in the alleged surveillance of some eminent Indians, and this does not reveal any secrets of the state or impact national security. “My friend (Mehta) says making that statement on oath itself is detrimental to national security. I am sorry, it is detrimental to the process of justice,” the senior lawyer said.
Fundamental rights of the citizens have to be protected, he said, adding that Pegasus spyware is illegal and cannot be used. Sibal said international agencies have stated that Indians were targeted by the spyware and yesterday, Germany has also accepted that Pegasus was used for the purpose of countering terrorism.
He said the government should not be allowed to constitute a committee of its own. Senior advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for one of the petitioners, said the snooping has been “an assault on the democracy” and the spyware not only snoops but it may also implant some material into the devices being tracked.
Several senior lawyers such Rakesh Dwivedi, Dinesh Dwivedi, Colin Gonsalves and Meenakshi Arora also argued in the case and demanded credible and independent probe into the snooping allegations. Arora said that a special investigation team headed by a retired judge of the apex court should be there to look into the matter.
Advocate ML Sharma, one of the petitioners, drew the court’s ire for saying “your colleague judge” during the arguments. “What is this your colleague judge? Is this the way to address the court?,” the CJI told Sharma.
The solicitor general also objected to Sharma’s submission and said he cannot address the court like this. “It is nor correct Mr Sharma. There is dignity in arguing the matters,” the bench said. Sharma said he wanted to say something else but he think, he gave a wrong impression.
The bench, after hearing the submissions, said it would pass an interim order in the matter. Mehta told the bench that government has “nothing to hide” and that is why the Centre has on its own said that it will constitute a committee of domain experts who will look into these allegations.
He said the issue whether a particular software is used or not used by the government cannot be a subject matter of public discourse as it has its “own pitfalls” and it would be better if target groups, like terror outfits, do not know what is being used to combat their activities.
The Centre had earlier filed a limited affidavit in the top court saying the pleas seeking an independent probe into the Pegasus snooping allegations are based on “conjectures and surmises or on other unsubstantiated media reports or incomplete or uncorroborated material”.
The pleas are related to reports of alleged snooping by government agencies on eminent citizens, politicians and scribes by using Israeli firm NSO’s spyware Pegasus. An international media consortium has reported that over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers were on the list of potential targets for surveillance using Pegasus spyware.