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Mauritius ‘snooping’ scandal — the ‘moustache man’ from India in the centre of the storm

Mauritian PM Pravind Jugnauth has come under massive attack, with opposition parties accusing him of ‘high treason’ for allowing Indian tech team to access sensitive internet centre there.

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New Delhi: The snooping scandal that has had Mauritius in its grip since June — and which has also dragged India into it — has now spiralled out of control, with opposition parties in the island nation accusing Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth of “high treason”. Calls for Jugnauth’s resignation have grown louder.

Meanwhile, an image of a certain “moustache man” from India, who is apparently believed to be the leader of the Indian technical team, which went to Mauritus to access a highly sensitive internet landing station, has surfaced in the local media there in the past week.

The internet landing station is located at a prohibited area in Mauritius at the historical landmark Baie-du-Jacotet and the access to the Indian team by PM Jugnauth, with the alleged objective to install a “sniffing” device that would spy on Mauritian internet traffic, is at the centre of the ongoing controversy.

While the PM has admitted that a team of technical experts from India did visit the facility, he denied allegations of snooping.

New Delhi has so far maintained the stance that what PM Jugnauth said is sufficient enough to clear the air about India.

The internet landing station, located in Baie-du-Jacotet in Mauritius, is not only a crucial internet hub on which the entire island of Mauritius depends, but is also part of the SAFE (South Africa Far East) submarine cable network — a 13,500-km submarine fibre optic cable connecting South Africa, Mauritius, La Réunion in France, India and Malaysia.

On Saturday, following a media report on the matter on the “moustache man”, members of all leading opposition parties of Mauritius — including two of the country’s former Prime Ministers — gave statements to the media there asking the Mauritian PM to step down immediately.

Navin Ramgoolam, ex-Mauritian PM and leader of the Labor Party, said Saturday at a press conference that PM Jugnauth has “lied to Parliament and to the Mauritians”.

“He violated the sovereignty of the country. This is clearly an act of high treason against the Mauritian nation … I will speak with the other political leaders as well. Pravind Jugnauth has a choice, either resign or return power to the people. Otherwise, the Mauritian people will have to take their destiny into their own hands. Everyone needs to come together,” said Ramgoolam.

He added: “If we don’t, they’ll make a device to sniff our data”, hinting at India’s hand in the matter.

On Friday, in a free-wheeling interview to the Mauritian radio station Radio Plus, the former CEO of Mauritius Telecom (MT) Sherry Singh — who is at the centre of this massive controversy — said that the Indian team which had come to survey the landing station at Baie-du-Jacotet was led by a man who had moustache, but his identity is hitherto unknown and hence during the interview Singh called him the “man with a moustache”.

It was Singh, who after resigning as the CEO of MT, gave interviews to the media earlier this month that led to furore in the island country. The former MT CEO had subsequently claimed that PM Jugnauth allowed an Indian intelligence services to install devices at the Baie-du-Jacotet station, which is capable of harvesting data from undersea cables carrying internet traffic.

Former Mauritius Prime Minister and member of the opposition party Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM), Paul Bérenger, said at a press conference Saturday that the government should come out clean and explain to the Mauritian public what survey did the Indian team carry out at that sensitive area.

Bérenger alleged: “The survey was carried out using their tools whereby they connected to several internet links that we have on the SAFE cable … The intention was to set up a permanent sniffing machine (there).”

Also read: Who legally authorises data interception & on what grounds: A study of 5 democracies

Mauritian government denies claims

During a session in their parliament earlier this month, PM Jugnauth said some sections of the political class there were deliberately dragging India into this and indulging themselves in “systematic India bashing to pursue their sinister agenda”.

But the matter worsened Friday, when apparently a technical report made by the former chief technical officer (CTO) of MT, Girish Guddoy, came to light through local media reports corroborating Singh’s claims.

The report, which has not been officially acknowledged by the Mauritian government, claimed that while an Indian team was given access to the SAFE cable network, it also captured data there by using their own devices and once the data was extracted the tools were removed.

This was vehemently denied by the government while they rejected the technical report and called it a ploy to destabilise the government.

“Everything was done legally. A police investigation is underway and the truth will come out,” Bobby Hurreeram, Minister of National Infrastructure, Mauritius told the press there Saturday.

Hurreeram, who addressed the media there along with IT Minister Deepak Balgobin, said that if the government had something to hide it would have made sure that the CCTV cameras were switched-off that captured images of the team and the ‘moustache man’ even as they pointed to the fact that technical report has no authorised signature on it.

They said this entire controversy is a “plot to destabilise the government” and to “poison the minds” of the common man there.

Ashok Radhakisoon, former President of Information and Communication Technologies Authority of Mauritius (ICTA), told ThePrint that the SAFE cable is an internet gateway, which is crucial to the national security of Mauritius.

“This is a crucial outlet for the country’s economy. There has been an illegal intrusion at the (Jacotet) island. I call it an essential facility. PM has himself admitted that he gave instructions to give access to the Indian technical expert team.”

Radhakisoon, who is also an independent lawyer there, said, “The government has to answer why the survey was held? What was the risk for which the technical team was called? They had access for six hours inside the facility and we do not know what protocol they followed and what they had to find out.

“Mauritians respect India but some sections of the population here are now increasingly getting critical of India. There is an overexposure of India happening in our domestic politics.”

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

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