New Delhi: Besides Delhi-based Kashmiri journalists and a prominent civil society activist critical of official policy towards Jammu and Kashmir, more than 25 people from the Kashmir Valley were selected as potential targets of intrusive surveillance between 2017 and mid-2019 by an as yet unidentified government agency that is also believed to be a client of the Israeli company NSO Group, according to leaked records reviewed by The Wire.
The numbers of key separatist leaders, politicians, human rights activists, journalists and business persons from Kashmir all figure in the snoop dragnet.
Of these, The Wire was able to conduct forensic analysis on the phones of two –- separatist leader Bilal Lone and the late S.A.R. Geelani, who worked as a lecturer in Delhi University and died in 2018.
Lone’s phone data was examined by Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Even though this phone set was not the same as the one he used at the time his phone was potentially targeted as per the leaked database, forensic analysis revealed signs of Pegasus targeting.
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.
For the other potential targets in Kashmir, it was not possible, for one reason or another, to conduct forensic analysis. As The Wire and its media partners have noted, the appearance of a number in the leaked database does not necessarily mean that the phone in question had been infected; but it does mean that the phone number was likely selected for potential surveillance.
Others on the leaked database include at least two members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chief and former chief minister of J&K Mehbooba Mufti’s family.
Their 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, The Wire reported.
J&K Apni Party president Altaf Bukhari’s brother Tariq Bukhari also makes an appearance on the list and was of considerable interest to the agency which added his name between 2017 and 2019.
In addition, at least four members of Kashmir’s most influential separatist 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, the report said.
The Wire said the 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.
Waqar Bhatti, a prominent human rights activist from the Valley, was also potentially a target of surveillance.
The Pegasus Project data also shows that at least five Kashmiri journalists — including Muzamil Jaleel of the Indian Express, Aurangzeb Naqshbandi with Hindustan Times at the time, Iftikhar Geelani formerly with DNA, and Sumir Kaul of PTI — were also targeted in the cyber-surveillance programme. The name of the fifth journalist is being withheld at their request. Shabir Hussain, a Delhi-based political commentator from Kashmir, is also on the list, The Wire said.
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 at 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 at their request
The phone of a handicrafts businessman based in downtown Srinagar was also potentially targeted in the campaign. He refused to comment.
Among others selected for potential surveillance include an influential Shia cleric associated with Mirwaiz-led Hurriyat and prominent separatist leader Zaffar Akbar Bhat.
The records also show that two social activists and a senior faculty member at an agriculture science university in the region were also chosen for potential surveillance, The Wire said.