Snooping case: Supreme Court issues pre-admission notice to Centre on pleas

File photo of Supreme Court of India in New Delhi   | Photo Credit: S. SUBRAMANIUM

The Supreme Court on Tuesday issued pre-admission notice to the Central government on petitions seeking an independent inquiry into the allegations that the government used Israeli-based Pegasus spyware to snoop on citizens.

Also read | Allegations of snooping using Pegasus mere ‘conjectures and surmises’: Government

The court made it clear to the government that “none of us want to compromise the defence of the nation... but there are citizens, some of them persons of eminence, who have complained of hacking of their phones”.

After issuing notice, a Bench of Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana, Justices Surya Kant and Aniruddha Bose said it would consider the further course of action, including the formation of a committee to inquire into the allegations, in due time.

The court listed the case for hearing after 10 days.

The notice was issued after the government, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, stood firm by its two-page affidavit denying “all and any” allegations. Mr. Mehta said any revelation about any software allegedly used by government to counter terrorism would compromise national security.

‘Matter of national security’

“They [petitioners] want us to say whether Pegasus was used or not… It is nobody’s case that interception is done by governments for the purpose of national security. Softwares are used… They want to know which software is used… No government will say which software is used because if we divulge, terrorists may take advantage. Which software is used or not is a matter of national security. It cannot be a matter of public debate,” Mr. Mehta stated at the start of the virtual hearing.

Also read | Pegasus case: Govindacharya asks Supreme Court to revive his 2019 petition

He clarified that the government was not refusing to reveal anything to anybody at all. “We are just saying we will not reveal it publicly,” he observed.

“Tomorrow, a web portal may start a narrative that a certain military equipment are used for some illegitimate purpose. A petition may be filed by a person who has nothing to do with this issue and who wants the military to declare whether the apparatus was used or not. I will be failing in my duty if I advice the government to divulge it on affidavit,”Mr. Mehta contended.

Committee of experts formation

The government had fairly agreed in court to form a committee of experts to inquire into the reports of Pegasus snooping, he noted.

“As a responsible government, we are submitting that we will form a committee of neutral experts, whose report will be placed before the Supreme Court… I repeat, it is not my case that I will not divulge anything. All will be revealed before the committee… Let me do that before a committee… Permit us to form a committee… We will place its report before the Supreme Court itself,” Mr. Mehta stated.

Justice Kant said there was no question of compromising national security.

“We are not going to ask you to divulge anything that will harm the defence of the nation… We are extremely reluctant to say anything on that. But the question here is that there are some persons of eminence who have come here, saying there has been interception of their phones… That can be done, but with the permission of the competent authority… What is the problem if that competent authority filed an affidavit before us? In the affidavit we don't want a single word on any aspect that relates to the security of the nation... All we are saying is that we are issuing simple notice… Let the competent authority say to what extent what information can be disclosed,” he explained.

Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, for veteran journalists N. Ram and Sashi Kumar, said “the security of the State is as important to the citizen as it is to the State”.

Sibal’s rebuttal of affidavit

On Monday, Mr. Sibal rebutted the affidavit on five points. One, he said it was filed by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and not the Ministry of Home Affairs which authorised surveillance under the law. Secondly, the affidavit skipped the part on whether the government or its agencies used Pegasus at all. Thirdly, he stated that if the government did not get the time to study the petitions and reply to them, then the court should give them the time. Fourthly, he countered that the affidavit did not even say whether the “facts and contentions” in the petitions were right or wrong.

“Finally, and most importantly, we do not want a government who might have used Pegasus to form a committee of experts to inquire into the issue. As far as I am concerned, the issue is simple. If the government says they have used the Pegasus, there is no need for a committee. If the government says they have not used the Pegasus, then too, there is no need for a committee,” Mr. Sibal had reasoned.

Mr. Mehta had explained that the offer to form a committee of experts was a “bona fide gesture” from the government to clear the air. He had invited the court to frame the panel’s terms of reference.

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 12:18:26 PM |

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