SRINAGAR: An India-based government agency that is also believed to be a client of Israeli company NSO Group reportedly made hacking attempts on phones of over 25 Hurriyat leaders hailing from Indian occupied Kashmir between 2017 and mid-2019.
According to leaked record reviews by The Wire, besides Delhi-based Kashmiri journalists, more than 25 people from the held Kashmir Valley were selected as potential targets of intrusive surveillance.
The France-based journalism non-profit, Forbidden Stories, and Amnesty International accessed a massive list of 50,000 numbers which are believed to have been selected as potential targets of surveillance by 10 countries.
The records were then shared with a group of 16 media houses across the world –including The Wire – who worked collaboratively to investigate the scope of this intended or actual surveillance over several months in an initiative termed as the Pegasus Project.
Of these, The Wire was able to conduct forensic analysis on the phones of two – Hurriyat leader Bilal Lone and the late Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
The Israeli firm, however, has denied that the records accessed by the Pegasus Project have anything to do with surveillance.
“It is not a list of targets or potential targets of NSO`s customers, and your repeated reliance on this list and association of the people on this list as potential surveillance targets is false and misleading,” NSO said in a letter to the Pegasus Project on Tuesday.
Before the government of India revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status in August 2019 and jailed hundreds of political opponents, dissidents and activists, Lone had formed a political outfit of his own, the Peoples Independent Movement, “to avoid confusion” with the Peoples Conference, which is headed by his brother Sajad Lone.
“I used to hear rumours about phone tapping. It never occurred to me that I also may be a target. But I am too small a person to do anything about it,” said Lone.
Geelani’s phone showed clear signs of Pegasus spyware activity between February 2018 and January 2019, forensic analysis showed, according to the publication’s report. The days and months in which the infection was detected on his phone match with his appearance in the leaked data.
Mehbooba Mufti’s family members
Others on the leaked database include at least two members of People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chief and former chief minister of J&K Mehbooba Mufti’s family.
The selection as potential targets of surveillance happened when Mufti was still chief minister of the erstwhile state and in a coalition with the BJP. In fact, Mufti’s family members were chosen for potential surveillance just months before the government collapsed as the BJP pulled out of the coalition in June 2018.
When asked if she thought there was a link, Mufti declined to comment.
She added that surveillance, as a concept for Kashmiris, is not new. “People are used to having their thoughts, ideas not only intercepted but even being punished for them.”
The brother of the politician, who is now close to BJP, was also selected.
J&K Apni Party president Altaf Bukhari’s brother Tariq Bukhari also makes an appearance in the list and was of considerable interest to the agency which added his name between 2017 and 2019.
His brother, Tariq, who was the subject of potential surveillance, is a businessman and political leader who, in April 2019, was questioned by the National Investigation Agency in a ‘terror funding’ case. In the aftermath of the stripping of J&K’s autonomy in August 2019, he was one of the few prominent Kashmiris to back the Union government’s decision.
In addition, at least four members of Kashmir’s most influential leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s family – including his son-in-law, journalist Iftikhar Gilani and his son, scientist Syed Naseem Geelani – were of consistent interest to the Indian client of the NSO group between 2017 and 2019.
Naseem said over SMS that he feels that he could have been a target of potential surveillance “probably because of political views of my father”. The older Geelani apparently does not use a mobile phone.
The unprecedented leak also shows that the current head of the Hurriyat conference Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was a potential target of surveillance between 2017 and 2019. Farooq, as chief cleric of the Jamia Masjid, a 14th-century iconic religious centre situated in Srinagar city, is also a very key religious figure in the Valley.
The records reveal that Farooq’s driver too had possibly been a target of surveillance.
When contacted by The Wire, a senior aide of Farooq’s said he was “disturbed” that his “fundamental rights have been put at stake”.
“It is an infringement of the right to privacy and a human rights violation. In J&K where even basic rights of an entire population remain suspended, it is unlikely there will be redressal,” the aide said, wishing to remain anonymous.
Journalists and civil society voices in the cross-hairs
Waqar Bhatti, a prominent human rights activist from the Valley, was also potentially a target of surveillance. Bhatti believes that he was possibly marked due to his activism.
“I am an activist from Kashmir. The government doesn’t like people who are involved in activism in Kashmir,” Bhatti told The Wire.
The telephone number of a highly-regarded Delhi-based civil society critic of the government’s Kashmir policy also features in the database for 2018 and 2019. The Wire verified the number but is withholding their identity on their request.
A prominent businessman based in the Valley was also of interest for potential surveillance, as was a Delhi-based businessman who is known to enjoy strong political contacts with all mainstream J&K parties. Their identities are being withheld on their request.