25 Nov - 1 Dec 2016 #834

The surveillance state

Rameshwar Bohara in Himal Khabarpatrika, (20-26 November)

Bhanu Bhattarai

When 157 UML-Maoist MPs registered an impeachment motion against the CIAA Chief Lokman Singh Karki in October, they accused him of abusing his authority and committing crimes against the state.

One of the nine charges against Karki is that he unlawfully snooped on political leaders and security chiefs by collecting their call details and tapping their phone calls.

Phone tapping is illegal, and even police are not authorised to intercept calls even though the Narcotics (Control) Act 1976 and the Prevention of Organized Crime Act 2013 allow them to do it during the investigation of certain cases.

How did Karki gather the wherewithal and the authorisation to listen in to the phones of politicians, businessmen, journalists, lawyers and civil society activists? Parliament could investigate this, but hasn’t.

However, after Karki’s suspension government agencies and security officials who were earlier afraid of him are now spilling the beans. They are giving details of the elaborate surveillance network that used to be directed by Karki from his headquarters in Tangal.

It was standard practice for the Home Ministry to second 100 selected policemen to duties at the CIAA. But after Karki’s appointment he started to personally handpick senior officers and policemen for positions at the CIAA. He prepared his list of 250 personnel, got it endorsed by the Home Ministry and inducted them into the CIAA headquarters turning it into a barrack.

Shortly after becoming the CIAA Chief, Karki used an inspector to spy on the publisher of an influential newspaper. But the inspector refused and somehow managed to get transferred out of the CIAA. Since then, Karki started working only with policemen he trusted and personally picked.

Karki sought budget from the Ministry of Finance to set up a state-of-the-art surveillance system, and chose police officers with training in electronic surveillance. “The fact that he chose the best of our surveillance officers shows that Karki was up to something sinister,” said a police AIG. “There is enough evidence that he intercepted calls of leaders, but what we do not know for sure is whether he did it from his own office or through telecommunication companies.”

Police are allowed to rely on telecommunication companies to trace calls, SMS and geo-locate suspects in criminal investigations. But the constitutional provision on the right to privacy does not allow them to intercept and tap phone calls.

There is speculation that some diplomatic missions in Kathmandu have their own equipment to intercept calls without relying on or informing telecommunications companies. The mysterious release in 2013 of an audiotape in which a man alleged to be Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara was heard requesting a Chinese businessman for Rs 500 million fuelled speculation that phone calls are being tapped in Nepal. The installation of such a system is very expensive, and can cost up to Rs 60 million. “But for Karki, that was not an impossible amount,” said one police officer.

The CIAA Act 1991 does not allow the anti-graft body to tap phone calls either, so if Karki was intercepting calls he was doing so clandestinely. Even without such equipment, he could have still arm-twisted telecommunication companies to record phone calls for him. For someone who was harassing the Prime Minister, ministers and MPs, that would not be so difficult.

Using surveillance as a tool of harassment is not new in Nepal. In 2001 after a state of emergency was declared, former Chief Justice Biswanath Upadhyay confided with close friends that royal army spies were spying on him. But the use of surveillance for harassment, bargaining and personal interests increased after Karki became CIAA Chief. He even used plainclothes policemen to spy on Chief Justice Sushila Karki, forcing the Supreme Court administration to raise this issue with police headquarters.

In April, Nepal magazine had published a letter written by the National Investigation Department (NID) Chief Dilip Regmi to Karki informing him about a 406-page report containing personal and financial details of 42 politicians, 62 bureaucrats, 39 retired bureaucrats and 52 retired and servicing security officers. Regmi also mentioned in the letter that he had prepared the list under the personal instruction of Karki.

As more details emerged, the NID report on personal details of politicians and bureaucrats turned out to be just a tip of the iceberg. It was when political leaders learnt that they were being spied on and could be arrested on corruption charges any time that they felt the need to impeach Karki.

Senior advocate and Nepali Congress MP Radheshyam Adhikari says: “Phone tapping by the CIAA violates citizen’s constitutional rights to privacy.”

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