A phone belonging to activist Rona Wilson, one of the accused persons in the Bhima Koregaon case, was infected with the Pegasus spyware three months before his arrest in June 2018, a forensic analysis of the device by Amnesty International has revealed, The Guardian reported on Friday.
Wilson is among the 13 activists and academicians still in jail for allegedly conspiring to set off caste violence in a village near Pune in 2018.
The Pegasus spyware, developed by Israeli technology company NSO Group, has been at the centre of a debate on privacy violations and illegal surveillance. The firm has maintained it only sells its products to government law enforcement and intelligence clients to help them monitor security threats.
But in July, a global investigation involving 17 news organisations, including The Guardian, The Washington Post and Indian news website The Wire, had revealed that the software was allegedly used to spy on heads of states, activists and journalists in several countries.
The organisations had accessed a database of numbers, which reflected potential targets of cyber surveillance through Pegasus. Wilson’s phone number was also on the database along with the contacts of activists and dissidents from across the world, The Guardian reported.
Amnesty International was also a partner in the investigation, which is called the Pegasus Project.
The international non-governmental organisation’s Security Lab examined the backups of Wilson’s phone, which his lawyers had shared with Arsenal Consulting, an American digital forensics firm, The Guardian reported.
Arsenal Consulting had previously found that an attacker had used malware to infiltrate Wilson’s laptop before his arrest and deposited at least 10 incriminating letters on it.
Amnesty International’s Security Lab confirmed through its analysis that Wilson’s phone had been compromised in July 2017 and between February and March 2018, The Guardian reported.
The activist’s phone was targeted with “15 SMS messages containing Pegasus attack links”, the newspaper reported.
Amnesty International Technologist Etienne Maynier described the revelations as “very worrying”, The Washington Post reported.
“What we need is an independent investigation into who is at the origin of this attack and responsible for this abuse,” she told the newspaper.
A representative for the NSO Group said the accusations brought to light by the analysis were not clear.
“Once a democratic country lawfully, following due process, uses tools to investigate a person suspected in an attempt to overthrow a [democratically-elected government], this would not be considered a misuse of such tools by any means,” the representative told The Washington Post.
The Bhima Koregaon case
The National Investigation Agency, which took over the case from the Pune Police in 2020, has alleged that the activists were part of a conspiracy to incite violence at the Bhima-Koregaon war memorial near Pune on January 1, 2018. One person was killed and several others were injured in the incident.
The first chargesheet in the case was filed by the Pune Police in November 2018, which ran to over 5,000 pages. It named Wilson and activists Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, and Mahesh Raut, all of whom were arrested in June 2018.
The police claimed that they had “active links” with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), and accused the activists of plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A supplementary chargesheet was filed later in February 2019 against lawyer-activist Sudha Bharadwaj, poet Varavara Rao, activists Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves and banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) leader Ganapathy. The accused were charged with “waging war against the nation” and spreading the ideology of the CPI (Maoist), besides creating caste conflicts and hatred in the society.
Only Rao and Bharadwaj have got bail so far. Tribal rights activist Stan Swamy, another accused person in the case, had died in custody in July. He was repeatedly denied bail despite his deteriorating health.