As the extent of possible surveillance done by Israeli spyware Pegasus continues to be revealed, 11 new phone numbers relating to a woman who accused former Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment have surfaced.
The Supreme Court staffer accused Gogoi of sexual harassment in April 2019. Just days after she made the allegations, two of the three phone numbers she was using were selected as potential targets for surveillance by an unidentified Indian agency, a customer of the Israeli cyberweapons company NSO Group, The Wire reported. The third number was chosen a week later, the report added.
Gogoi, however, refused to comment on the report. "I will not comment on it," he said on Tuesday, reported NDTV.
In December 2018, weeks after the staffer claimed that she rejected Gogoi’s advances, she was dismissed from her job as a junior court assistant.
In April 2019, just days after she recorded her allegations in a sworn affidavit, she was marked as a person of interest, French media non-profit Forbidden Stories has revealed after analysis of the leaked list of possible surveillance targets.
Moreover, the leaked list shows that eight other phone numbers belonging to her husband and two of his brothers were also marked as possible surveillance targets in the same week her allegations against the former CJI were first reported.
A wide net of 11 selected phone numbers, associated with the complainant and her family, makes this the largest cluster of numbers in the India chapter of the Pegasus Project.
The leaked list of names was provided to The Wire and 15 other international news organisations by France-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International.
Selection of the staffer’s phone numbers and their timing seem to possibly suggest a direct correlation with her allegations against the CJI.
However, as forensic examination of the phones linked to the former court staffer has not been conducted, it cannot conclusively be established that she and her family were indeed targeted by the spyware.
Members of the Pegasus Project sent a query to the Prime Minister's Office regarding the matter.
Describing the allegation of an association between the government and the spyware as “malicious claims”, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEiTY) said, “The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever”, The Wire reported.
Meanwhile, NSO states that it does not operate the systems that it sells to vetted government customers and neither does it claim to have access to the data of its customers’ targets.
Further, it cannot confirm or deny the identity of its government customers, due to national security considerations.
'A Matter of Great Public Importance'
After her complaint, a special bench of the Supreme Court including the Chief Justice himself, along with Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna, was constituted to have a special sitting on the matter. The notice for the same noted that they were sitting “to deal with a matter of great public importance touching upon the independence of judiciary.”
If, however, her phones were under surveillance, then the agency involved had the ability to invade her privacy and possibly know the legal strategy of the woman who claimed to have been sexually harassed by the Chief Justice of India.
The woman’s sworn affidavit was sent to 22 sitting judges of the Supreme Court. In it, she had claimed that after she had rejected Gogoi’s advances, her husband and other family members were deliberately persecuted.
Both her husband and brother-in-law worked for the Delhi Police at the time of her alleged sexual harassment. Soon after her dismissal, her husband and brother-in-law were suspended in January 2019.
The woman also claimed that after she rejected the CJI’s alleged advances, she was transferred thrice in a matter of weeks, put through disciplinary proceedings, which led to her eventual dismissal.
Her brother-in-law who was appointed from the CJI’s discretionary quota was also removed from his office without any explanation.
Moreover, a case of bribery was lodged against the woman in March 2019 in which she was arrested and jailed for a day; she is currently out on bail.
Her lawyer Vrinda Grover had told The Quint, “On 3 March (2019), someone called Naveen, who nobody knows, lodged a case that in 2017 this lady told me she will get me a job in the Supreme Court so I gave her Rs 50,000 and after two years he suddenly remembers to put an FIR. Even otherwise, the person who gives bribe is also to be charged.”
Gogoi had denied all allegations by the staffer. Moreover, the in-house probe conducted by the top court was criticised for being insensitive and suspicious rather than being empathetic towards the woman.
Gogoi was eventually exonerated, with a three-judge panel declaring that her charges had no “substance”.
Now, the woman's case possibly stands tainted by the possible surveillance of the staffer and her family.
At a special sitting of the court on 20 April, in which Justice Gogoi himself presided over, he claimed that the accusations against him were part of a “bigger plot”, which sought to “deactivate the office of the CJI”.
He had also claimed that the independence of the judiciary was under threat and that if judges had to work under conditions like this, “good people will never come to this office”.
Meanwhile, the complainant, citing intimidation and a lack of sensitivity, eventually withdrew from the proceedings.
Despite the sexual harassment allegations, Justice Gogoi went on to serve his term as the 46th CJI until 17 November 2019.
Despite criticism from India's legal fraternity, within six months of his retirement, Gogoi was nominated to the Rajya Sabha as “a member of eminence” by the Union government.
(With inputs from The Wire)