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Indian government under fire as Israeli spyware accusations pile up

Pakistan asks UN to investigate reports that PM Imran Khan’s phone was hacked and Delhi opposition chief accuses Modi of ‘treason’ over use of NSO program

Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. (AP/Manish Swarup)
Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. (AP/Manish Swarup)

Pakistan asked the UN to investigate suspicions that India used spyware from Israeli firm NSO to hack into president Imran Khan’s phone and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s main political rival Rahul Gandhi accused the government of “treason” over the scandal Friday.

Khan and Ghandi’s names were included in a leaked global database of 50,000 possible Pegasus spying targets that was revealed by an international group of media outlets.

“We have noted with serious concern recent international media reports exposing Indian government’s organized spying operations against its own citizens, foreigners as well as Prime Minister Imran Khan, using an Israeli origin spyware,” a Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson said, according to Reuters.

“We are closely following these revelations and will bring the Indian abuses to the attention of appropriate global platforms,” the spokesperson added. “In view of the gravity of these reports, we call on the relevant UN bodies to thoroughly investigate the matter, bring the facts to light, and hold the Indian perpetrators to account.”

The Indian government has rejected spying claims although critics note it has not said whether it is a client of NSO Group, the Israeli maker of the Pegasus spyware which effectively captures a target’s cellphone.

The claims have sparked uproar in the Indian parliament, with one opposition MP — since suspended — on Thursday snatching and ripping up the text of a statement on the subject being delivered by IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 19, 2020 (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

“Pegasus is classified by the Israeli state as a weapon and that weapon is supposed to be used against terrorists,” Gandhi, 51, told reporters in New Delhi.

“The prime minister and the home minister have used this weapon against the Indian state and against our institutions. The only word for this is treason…. and this has to be investigated.”

The alleged database of phone numbers included more than 1,000 in India, with the owners of 300 of them identified in the media reports.

It is not known how many of the phones on the list were actually targeted for surveillance or how many attempts were successful.

Dalai Lama aides among targets

But according to Indian news website The Wire — one of the media outlets given access to the database by two rights groups — mounting forensic evidence suggests one or more official agencies have been using the spyware.

Other possible targets revealed in the reports on Thursday include aides to the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India, and businessman Anil Ambani.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, attends a meeting with Israeli chief rabbis in Jerusalem, February 19, 2006. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Modi’s government has said that any covert surveillance — which has a long history in India — is done in accordance with strict rules and oversight.

Ministers have said the release of the reports by the global media consortium was deliberately coordinated to coincide with the eve of the current session of the Indian parliament.

On Thursday the chief minister of Assam state, an ally of Modi, called for Amnesty International — which along with French media nonprofit Forbidden Stories gave the group of newspapers access to the database — to be banned in India.

Congress party workers shout slogans during a protest accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using military-grade spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists in New Delhi, India, July 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

“Amnesty International is a partner in this investigation. Now we all know the role of Amnesty. They are encouraging left-wing terrorism in India… working overnight to defame the country,” Himanta Biswa Sarma said.

A clutch of organizations representing journalists called for a Supreme Court-monitored probe into the alleged snooping.

“This is a moment that demands deep introspection and inquiry into the kind of society we are heading towards, and how far we may have veered away from the democratic values enshrined in our constitution,” the Editors Guild of India said.

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