Hours after a report claimed that a hacker planted evidence on a device owned by tribal rights activist Stan Swamy, several politicians, academics, activists and social organisations on Tuesday denounced the incident and described it as a “blot on the justice system”.

“Is this how a democratic country treats its own?” Congress leader Salman Anees Soz tweeted. “The courts must introspect. Is this the best they can do?

The report on the analysis of Swamy’s system was released by Massachusetts-based digital forensics firm Arsenal Consulting, which had previously made similar revelations about other accused persons Surendra Gadling and Rona Wilson.

Arsenal Consulting said that Swamy had been targeted by an extensive malware campaign for nearly five years till his device was seized by the police in June 2019. In that duration, the hacker had complete control over the activist’s computer and placed dozens of files in a hidden folder without his knowledge.

Swamy died in custody at a Mumbai hospital on July 5 last year, nearly nine months after he was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The 84-year-old had suffered from multiple ailments, including Parkinson’s disease and had contracted the coronavirus infection at the Taloja prison at Navi Mumbai.

On Tuesday, the Christian body Jesuits of India thanked Arsenal Consulting for publishing the report.

“We, the Jesuits of India, continue to stand in solidarity with those who are languishing in various jails for defending the rights of the poor, especially those falsely implicated in BK16 [Bhima Koregaon] case and reaffirm our commitment to the poor and the marginalised and walk with them in their quest for dignity, liberty, and freedom,” it said in a statement.

The Indian American Muslim Council tweeted that one should not forget that Swamy was a victim of institutional murder.

Journalist Rajdeep Sardesai asked if the National Investigation Agency will come clean about the reported hacking and whether the courts will look at the forensic analysis.

“Or by asking these questions, does one risk being labelled ‘anti national’?” he asked.

Historian Audrey Truschke tweeted: “The Indian state planted evidence framing an elderly and ill priest, who fought for the downtrodden. They locked him in jail on that false evidence, deprived him of medical care, until he died in Indian custody.”

Congress leader Dinesh Gundu Rao described the revelations as alarming and scary.

“If evidence can be planted in this way, then the state can put many people behind bars on all kinds of charges,” he tweeted. “Stan Swamy died in custody and others in the Bhima Koregaon case are still languishing in jail. The courts must step in.”

According to Arsenal Consulting, the hacker used WinSCP – a free file transfer tool for Windows – to copy over 24,000 files and folders from Swamy’s computer onto the hacker’s own server.

Arsenal Consulting also said that the unidentified hacker appeared to be the same person who had targeted Wilson and Gadling, in view of the usage of the same command and control servers and the same NetWire configurations.

In February 2021, the digital forensics firm found that Rona Wilson’s computer was hacked using malicious software to plant 10 letters, which the Pune Police and the National Investigation Agency used as primary evidence in the chargesheet they filed in the Bhima Koregaon case.

A follow-up report in April 2021 revealed further evidence that 22 incriminating letters were planted in his laptop.

The Bhima Koregaon case

On January 1, 2018, violent clashes broke out between Maratha and Dalit groups near the village of Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra. Sixteen people were arrested for allegedly plotting the violence.

While Dalit groups and individuals have accused Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide of instigating the violence through hate speeches before the incident, the focus of the National Investigation Agency has been on the Elgar Parishad event being part of a larger Maoist conspiracy to stoke caste violence, destabilise the Central government and assassinate the prime minister.