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'India's Watergate': The death of a jailed priest and cyberhacking

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

India is wrapping up elections this week, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is forecast to win a third term. He is popular, but he has also stifled dissent. One of his rivals was thrown in prison before voting began. And on yesterday's show, we told you about how, in the lead-up to the last election five years ago, some of the country's most famous intellectuals were also imprisoned. On today's show, we look at how their case has become a bellwether for Indian democracy. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Fifteen (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR LATCH CLICKING)

SUDHA BHARADWAJ: Hello.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Sudha.

BHARADWAJ: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Sudha Bharadwaj is out on bail after more than three years in jail but still barred from going home.

BHARADWAJ: Unfortunately, my bail conditions restrict me to Mumbai, which is not really my city. It's far away from my trade union, where my legal practice as a lawyer...

FRAYER: Born in Massachusetts to MIT academics, she gave up her U.S. passport to settle among Indigenous tribes in the jungles of Central India. She's devoted her career to representing them in lawsuits against mining companies, many of which have close ties to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

BHARADWAJ: My phone was continuously being taped. Sometimes I had to speak into the phone and say, will you please shut off that machine? I can't even listen to whoever I'm talking.

FRAYER: One day about six years ago, she turned on the TV...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Good evening, and welcome, viewers. A group of fake activists and fake intellectuals promoting terrorism...

FRAYER: ...And heard her name on the evening news. A right-wing TV anchor said she was connected to a plot against the prime minister.

BHARADWAJ: I wasn't, and I had no clue about it at all. And so Father Stan didn't, either.

FRAYER: Father Stan Swamy, a Catholic priest she'd crossed paths with, whose name was also all over the media. Before long, they and 14 other human rights activists, lawyers, even poets would all find themselves in jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STAN SWAMY: They have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers of India.

FRAYER: That's the sound of a video Stan Swamy recorded of himself two days before his arrest. He was frail, 83 years old with Parkinson's disease. He talks about his work on behalf of Indigenous people in Indian jails, which he says embarrassed the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SWAMY: They wanted to put me out of the way.

FRAYER: Police searched Swamy's house, confiscated his computers and finally arrested him in 2020.

MIHIR DESAI: I received a call from him on the day when his house was raided.

FRAYER: Mihir Desai is Swamy's lawyer. He says his client had never heard of this terror plot, but documents found on his computer linked him to it.

DESAI: Basically, the evidence are screenshots of certain letters or certain minutes of meeting.

FRAYER: Minutes of meetings of banned communist rebels who do operate in Indian jungles but probably don't do board meetings.

DESAI: They don't have minutes. I mean...

FRAYER: On Sudha Bharadwaj's computer, they found documents with grammar suggesting they were written by someone who speaks Marathi, a regional language she doesn't know, but it is the native tongue of the regional police in this case. Other evidence includes a letter in English suggesting a suicide attack against Modi. In Swamy's case, it would have been difficult for him to type up meeting notes for terrorists or for anyone for that matter.

Was Stan a savvy computer user?

DESAI: No, no, no, no, no.

FRAYER: A digital...

DESAI: One finger - slow typist.

FRAYER: He didn't have the dexterity because of his Parkinson's. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, even the United Nations have all raised questions about this. Defense lawyers say their clients were framed, the evidence planted on their devices, because of their human rights work, which Modi's government didn't like. Here's how they say it unfolded.

TOM HEGEL: My name's Tom Hegel. I'm with a cybersecurity firm called SentinelOne, researching cyber threat activity across the world. What we saw in the case with Stan's machine - open the attachment, and then it's game over from there.

FRAYER: Hegel reviewed copies of the defendants' computers. He says it started as a phishing attack. Then the hacker used a tool like a remote administrator.

HEGEL: So when we see the files being planted, what we're seeing is the attacker transfer certain files to the target's machine. In this case, .PDF files or Windows Word documents - from a forensic perspective, they stick out very quickly.

FRAYER: He was able to trace the attackers cyber footprints straight back to the Indian government.

HEGEL: The malware that is doing the remote access - it's being controlled with the attacker's email and password. Those email addresses themselves are tied to backup recovery phone numbers associated with one of the arresting officers in the Indian police. You could go your whole career in this industry and never find something that's as obviously attributable like that.

FRAYER: Hegel calls this a smoking gun and the whole scandal India's Watergate. But nobody here has resigned. Police have not been fired or even investigated. They've refused my interview requests for years. So has the Indian equivalent of the FBI. In the meantime, Indian lawyers and journalists looking into this case have found Pegasus spyware on their devices. It's an Israeli-made surveillance tool sold only to governments.

BECKA WHITE: There is a really worrying, disturbing pattern of spyware attacks in India.

FRAYER: Becka White is with Amnesty International's tech branch.

WHITE: It's part of a broader pattern of dissent being crushed, freedom of expression being stifled, people speaking truth to power and being targeted.

FRAYER: Now, I'm quoting experts outside India here because many inside are too scared. In recent years, Indian authorities have raided the BBC, frozen bank accounts and forced Amnesty International out of the country. Even an Indian expat working in Europe for a big human rights organization declined to speak to me about this case unless I could disguise their voice. And all the while, 16 of India's most prominent human rights workers are still awaiting trial except for one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The big breaking story - Father Stan Swamy, the 84-year-old priest and activist, has now died.

FRAYER: Stan Swamy died in the summer of 2021 of complications from COVID, Parkinson's and dismal prison conditions.

BHARADWAJ: Little before that, I had got one letter from him in a very shaky hand. He probably couldn't keep the pen steady.

FRAYER: His co-defendant, Sudha Bharadwaj, was in jail then, too, herself. And they used to exchange letters, which would arrive on a long delay.

BHARADWAJ: In fact, if you'll just hang on for a bit...

FRAYER: Do you have it?

BHARADWAJ: ...I'll just get it for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)

FRAYER: In Swamy's last letter, he asked first about the health of the other defendants.

BHARADWAJ: Very much hope both of you will be well soon. Then he says, we all have to outlive the critical period we're going through. A lot of people are in solidarity with us, but finally, we are the ones to plow through the rugged field. We have to outlive...

FRAYER: We have to outlive, Bharadwaj says, because her friend Stan Swamy did not.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

FRAYER: At a Jesuit chapel in northern Mumbai, I met one of the last people to see Stan Swamy alive. There were prison guards in his hospital room, but they let in Father Frazer Mascarenhas, who says he found Swamy at ease and unafraid.

FRAZER MASCARENHAS: The fact is that he was totally confident of the constitution and the law.

FRAYER: Confident that the rule of law would prevail. Mascarenhas believes that could hinge on this current election going on right now.

MASCARENHAS: India is really in danger now. All the democratic structures have been compromised. And so it's only the integrity of the elections which we are depending on now. So wish us well in India. We are fighting for democracy.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

That's NPR's Lauren Frayer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.