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Pegasus row in SC: Hearing adjourned until August 17; Centre's Expert Committee proposal questioned

The Centre cited threat to national security saying the government cannot be compelled to declare whether Pegasus was procured or not.

August 16, 2021 / 03:19 PM IST
The Supreme Court of India.

The Supreme Court of India.

The Supreme Court of India on August 16 sought to know if the Centre wants to file an additional affidavit on the alleged use of Pegasus spyware to snoop on journalists, politicians, activists and court staff.

The top court, while adjourning the hearing of a batch of petitions seeking a probe into the snooping allegations till August 17, said it cannot compel the government to file an affidavit if it was reluctant to do so.

"We will continue tomorrow. If you have a change of mind, let us know tomorrow. If Mr Mehta (Solicitor General) may decide to file an affidavit, then we have nothing to say, else we will hear all of you," Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said before winding up the hearing, according to legal news website Bar & Bench.

The Bench, also comprising Justices Surya Kant and Aniruddha Bose, is hearing a batch of petitions by journalist N Ram, TMC leader Yashwant Sinha, Editors Guild and seven others, seeking an independent probe into the alleged Pegasus snooping matter.

READ: Pegasus Project Report: Centre denies snooping allegations in its affidavit in Supreme Court, says will set up probe committee

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Earlier, the Centre filed a two-page affidavit in the Supreme Court in which it unequivocally denied all allegations of using spyware to snoop on journalists, politicians, activists and court staff.

The government also informed the top court that it will soon set up a committee of experts to examine all issues raised in the Pegasus Project row to dispel any wrong narrative spread by certain vested interests.

The Bench, however, observed that it was a limited affidavit and has not satisfied the allegations about whether Pegasus was used or not. The Bench also asked solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the government, how a technical committee could go into the question of lawful authorisation, procurement etc.

“We have heard. Let us ask something to SG Mehta. It is a limited affidavit and it has not satisfied the allegations- whether Pegasus was used or not. Unless and until you furnish the information, we cannot go on with the hearing. We can give time for a detailed affidavit and decide the scope of committee," the CJI said.

The government cited threat to national security saying the government cannot be compelled to declare whether Pegasus was procured or not.

“This matter if gone into, will have national security implications. This matter cannot be handled like furnish an affidavit etc. This is an issue in which facts placed etc. will have national security concerns. There is a system in place,” Mehta told the Court.

On August 10, the Apex court had taken exception over "parallel proceedings and debates" on social media by some petitioners who have sought an independent probe into the alleged snooping row.

The government has also said that the issue stands clarified before the Parliament by the Minister of Electronics and IT and nothing more needs to be done by the Court on these petitions.

Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar, argued that the Centre's affidavit "does not answer any of our questions."

Also, read: In-Depth | Pegasus spyware scandal and growing chorus to regulate private surveillance 

An international media consortium has reported that over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers were on a list of potential targets for surveillance using Israeli firm's Pegasus spyware.

Opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi, two Union ministers, Prahlad Singh Patel and Railways and IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnav, a former CBI chief, and at least 40 journalists are on the list on the leaked database of NSO.

Also, read Parliament Monsoon Session: Opposition blames Centre for deadlock, seeks debate on Pegasus in both Houses

The report released on July 18 led to a political row with Opposition parties protesting in both Houses of Parliament during the Monsoon Session of Parliament.

The Session that began on July 19 was marred by ruckus and uproar with Opposition members stalling proceedings in both the Houses demanding discussions on the Pegasus Project Report, farmers' agitation and price rise. The Parliament was adjourned sine die on August 11.
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