A US congressional briefing held by a coalition of Indian American and human rights organisations on Thursday said that the Bhima Koregaon violence case was a clear evidence of “deteriorating democracy” in India. The briefing took place on Thursday after a new report from a United States-based digital forensics firm revealed that a hacker planted 22 additional incriminating documents in activist Rona Wilson’s laptop.
Over 50 people representing Congressional offices and human rights organisations attended the meeting. The offices of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Representatives Juan Vargas, Pramila Jayapal, Senator Tim Kaine, the chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Congressman Jim McGovern, the US State Department were among those who attended the meeting.
Arsenal Consulting examined an electronic copy of Wilson’s laptop on a request from his lawyers, who got it from the police in November 2019 as per a court order. A previous analysis by the company in February found that 10 letters had been deposited on the activist’s laptop. The Pune Police used these letters as its primary evidence in the chargesheet they filed in the Bhima Koregaon case.
The new report, which is yet to be made public, was reviewed by Article 14 and The Washington Post. It said the hacker opened a command prompt to deliver the documents to a hidden folder on Wilson’s laptop. These files include details of purported meetings of Maoist militants, alleged correspondence with Maoist leaders and information of money received by the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
A press statement of the meeting said that Mark Spencer, Arsenal’s president, described the planting of key files into the accused’s laptop as “the most serious type of case in digital forensics”. “The size of the malware infrastructure is mind boggling,” he added. “The same attacker, the same infrastructure, has been active for several years – involving multiple campaigns, and multiple types of malware.”
Spencer also informed that the typing activity of the accused in the case were spied upon, adding that a control was established even on their removable storage devices like pen drives and external hard drives. The president of the Massachusetts-based firm maintained that he can “say with authority” that the evidence Arsenal has uncovered leaves no room for doubt that the files were planted.
Ted Penton of the Jesuit Conference spoke about his colleague and 83-year-old activist Stan Swamy. Last month, the special National Investigation Agency court rejected Swamy’s bail petition and said that prima facie he had conspired with CPI(M) members to create unrest in India and to overthrow the government.
“What’s breaking my heart is how needlessly cruel his [Swamy’s] imprisonment has been,” Penton said. “This is an 83-year-old man; he suffers from Parkinson’s disease; his trembling hands make it difficult to drink; but for several weeks, they wouldn’t allow him to bring a straw into the jail. He had to get a court order to get that.”
Front Line Defenders, an international organisation, that has been following the Bhima Koregaon case spoke about the arrests of human rights activists Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha. It highlighted the role of NIA in targeting and incarcerating the activists since it took over the case in January 2020.
“This [Arsenal] report, while shocking, is not surprising: what it has done is provided evidence for the consistent position of those incarcerated and those working with them that the documents and digital evidence investigators have linked to them are false,” a representative of the organisation said.
The representative added that the case shows “executive over-reach and abuse of power to punish and silence” human rights activists. “Each of these defenders represent communities that are marginalised and have been made vulnerable,” he said. “They are being punished for their peaceful work. It is not only the judicial process, but the actions of the executive, the police, and now the NIA that determines the fate of these defenders.”
The representative said the judicial process was itself a punishment and said those accused in the Bhima Koregaon case were at risk due to their age and underlying health conditions amid the surging coronavirus pandemic in India.
The panelists said that the Joe Biden administration in the United States must play a role in addressing the attack on human rights and democratic institutions in India, given its close ties to the Narendra Modi government. They said the US must hold India to account for its commitments as a member of both the United Nations Human Rights Council and the UN Security Council.
Several activists and academics have been accused of making inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad conclave held at Shaniwar Wada in Pune on December 31, 2017, which the authorities claim triggered violence at Bhima-Koregaon war memorial the next day. They are accused of conspiring against the Indian government.