The Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’sCourt in Delhi has reportedly extended the police custody of freelance journalist Rajeev Sharma, arrested in an espionage case under the Official Secrets Act. The court also extended the custody of two other accused; a Chinese national, and the Nepalese man by seven days.
Rajeev Sharma, a senior freelance journalist was arrested by the Delhi police under the Official Secrets Act, on September 14. The other two, Chinese citizen Qing Shi and Nepalese national Sher Singh alias Raj Bohra were arrested in Delhi on Friday. The police have alleged that they are accused of paying Sharma “large amounts of money routed through shell companies”, as reported by multiple news media.
Delhi Police Special Cell is also reported as saying that Rajeev Sharma was “found to be in possession of some defence-related classified documents”. However, senior advocate Adish Aggarwala, who is representing the Journalist Rajeev Sharma, told the court that the latter did not possess any ‘classified documents’, reported The Hindu. Sharma’s lawyer told the court that while it was fact that the journalist worked for a Chinese news organisation, the Delhi Police’s claim that they have found “incriminating evidence”, in his possession “is not true”. The Hindu reported that police seized his mobile, laptop and a “draft copy of his book on the Home Minister of India” during the raid at his house, said his lawyer.
Sharma was arrested at around 10.30 P.M on September 14, when he was out driving, and a police team raided his house in Pitampura, Delhi at 3 A.M on September 15. It is reported that the police seized Sharma’s mobile, laptop, passport, I-T files, LIC policies, and a draft copy of a book on the Home Minister, during the raid. His lawyer has questioned if the “police have found the ‘classified document’ from his possession on the day one and then why did they wait four days to make the public,” reported the Hindu. He added that the Delhi police in a press conference had clearly stated that they won’t be questioning defence personnel over the leak of classified documents. Aggarwala said Sharma must have “got the documents from someone,” as it was not “not printed” at his home.
The news report states that according to his lawyer, Sharma represented Global Times, where he worked for from 2014-16 and was paid. As a journalist he had been invited to China by the newspaper. “A lot of people from China are working here and several Indians are working there. There’s nothing wrong in that,” Aggarwala is quoted in the news report.
Another dimension and question on Sharma’s arrest has been raised by a report in The Telegraph. ‘Was the national security adviser not aware of freelance journalist Rajeev Sharma’s alleged illegal activities?’, it asks.
According to senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who had interviewed Sharma in November last year, and spoke to The Telegraph, “Sharma knew Ajit Doval (national security adviser) very well and the accredited journalist was very open about it. The logical question to be asked now: was the NSA not aware of his alleged illegal activities?”
The question has wide national security implications, as pointed in the report, because Delhi Police have claimed that Sharma received cash from a Kunming-based Chinese handler, “George”, from January 2019 till September 2020 for information allegedly provided by the journalist.
The Telegraph explains that if the charges are true, it would mean that classified information was being leaked from the government even at the height of the current border crisis in eastern Ladakh. According to the report, Sharma was also one of those who had said their “phone was under surveillance through an invasive Israeli-developed spyware called Pegasus.” The Centre had denied it had anything to with the purported surveillance. The police alleged that Sharma received “Rs 30 lakh in 10 instalments from his Chinese handler between January 2019 and September 2020 and had meetings with the handler in Malaysia and Kunming City (in China).”
The arrests also gave an opportunity to the opposition to connect the dots between Sharma and Doval. Prashant Pratap Singh, Congress national media coordinator, posted a video clip from Sharma’s interview where he is introduced as one who “has worked with NSA Doval in the Vivekananda International Foundation for some time”.
— Prashant Pratap Singh (@iPrashantSingh) September 19, 2020
In his interview, Thakurta had introduced Sharma as someone who had once worked with Doval in the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF). The VIF was set up in 2009 with Doval as its founding director. The VIF, which describes itself as an “independent, non-partisan institution”, is a project of the Vivekananda Kendra, founded in the early 1970s by former RSS general secretary Eknath Ranade, stated the Telegraph, adding that with its office in Chanakyapuri, the diplomatic hub of the capital, VIF’s website lists its “relationships” with multiple Chinese institutions/ think tanks that deal with strategic studies.
If Sharma did pass on classified defence information, the question how he had accessed such intelligence has not yet yielded any convincing answer, stated the Telegraph, though many other news reports based on ‘sources’ in Delhi police state that Sharma accessed the information by giving the impression that he was collecting the data for his work as a journalist.
It is known that Sharma is an accredited journalist, covering beats including foreign affairs, security and defence. The accreditation he holds is issued by the government’s Press Information Bureau which has layers of security checks and verifications, that have to be cleared beforehand, including police clearances.
Meanwhile, the Press Club of India, which has issued a statement in solidarity with Rajeev Sharma, “a well-known independent journalist of long standing and a member of the Press Club of India.” The PCI issued the statement “on account of the dubious track record of the Special Branch,” and said that they “have no hesitation in saying that the police action are high-handed, and may be inspired by obscure or questionable considerations.”
They drew parallels with the 2002, arrest of Iftikhar Gilani, a senior journalist then with Kashmir Times, who was charged with “tracking the Army’s movements in Kashmir”. He was incarcerated in Tihar jail for seven months, and “eventually, it was the Army’s intelligence that gave the lie to the bogus police case and Gilani had to be released.” Another Delhi journalist, who wrote for Iran’s official news agency, was also arrested for playing in the hands of the Iranian secret service some years ago. “Eventually it became clear that the whole case was bogus and the journalist was freed,” stated the PCI, adding that “of late, Delhi Police, including its Special Branch, have made preposterous arrests under the lawless law called UAPA in which the word of the government is enough to keep an innocent person behind bars for long periods. These have happened in matters relating to anti-CAA protests and the carefully designed communal killings in the so-called February 2020 riots in northeast Delhi.”
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