New Delhi: Three days after Pakistan announced that an Indian national, Kulbhushan Jadhav, had been sentenced to death for espionage, India has said that it has no information about a missing Pakistani retired officer whose disappearance has led to media speculation about an imminent ‘spy swap’.
On Thursday, Pakistan formally pointed fingers at India for ‘luring’ former retired Pakistani army officer Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Habib Zahir, who has been missing since April 6 from Lumbini in Nepal – which is close to India’s border.
“He was lured after being offered a job… The role of foreign spy agencies cannot be ruled out,” said Pakistan foreign office spokesperson Nafees Zakaria.
He had earlier announced that Pakistan was in touch with Nepal over the disappearance on April 8. Two days later, the head of Pakistan army’s media wing suddenly announced that Jadhav had been sentenced by a Field General Court Martial under sections of the Pakistan Army Act and the Official Secrets Act. The timing of events had led to media speculation of a link.
The Indian external affairs ministry spokesperson Gopal Baglay stopped short of a denial, only stating that he didn’t have any information. “I don’t have any such information about the retired Pakistan officer,” he told reporters on Thursday at the ministry’s weekly media briefing.
To further questions on whether any ‘swap’ was possible to get Jadhav, he added, “Since I don’t have information, I can’t speculate if it is true or not true”.
Before Jadhav’s sentence was announced on April 10, India had issued 13 requests to Pakistan for consular access in the last one year. Pakistan had denied all the requests. Pakistan claims that Jadhav was picked up from Balochistan on March 6, 2016, , describing him as a serving Indian military official working as a spy. India has admitted that Jadhav is an Indian national, but asserts that he has retired from the Indian navy and was kidnapped by the Pakistan security forces from Iran.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj informed parliament on Tuesday that Pakistan “sought our assistance to obtain evidence and other materials for the investigation process”.
India is again likely to push for consular access for Jadhav through diplomatic channels, with the Indian high commission in Islamabad getting instructions from headquarters on Thursday, sources indicated.
Meanwhile, India is examining different options for appeals through a legal process in Pakistan, taking a cue from the lessons learned from the case of another Indian national in Pakistan’s military courts, Hamid Ansari. The Pakistan government had to respond to a habeas corpus petition in the Peshawar high court.
According to a report in Dawn, Jadhav has 40 days to file an appeal against the verdict in the Pakistan army’s court of appeal. If the verdict against him is upheld, he can approach the Pakistan army chief and the Pakistan president for clemency. But Jadhav can also approach a high court in Pakistan if due process was not followed. Jadhav’s family could also submit a petition before the Supreme Court.
However, India refused to say whether New Delhi would go the appeal way or get third countries to put pressure on Pakistan to find a resolution. “I won’t like to speculate on the steps for the future,” he said.
Meanwhile, Baglay said that there was an overriding “national sentiment” in India over Jadhav. “The entire country is worried with him. The sentiment of the entire country is associated with him. The parliament of India has spoken in one voice,” he said.
Reiterating India’s response that carrying out the sentence would be deemed “premeditated murder”, Baglay noted, “We have said very clearly that the proceedings against Kulbhushan Jadhav, where he has been denied proper defence, is farcical, the verdict is indefensible, no due process was followed and wasagainst violations of basic norms of justice and international relations”.
He said Pakistan’s assertion that Jadhav was carrying an Indian passport raised doubts about its claims that he was in Pakistan for espionage. “It begs the question, what kind of spy would take his [country’s] passport with him on a mission in foreign territory,” he said.
Since Jadhav had been based in Chabahar in Iran, Baglay said that India had discussed the matter with Tehran last year. However, he claimed that he was not aware of the result of the investigation that Iran had conducted into the presence of Jadhav.
To a question on whether Pakistan’s civilian government and military were on the same page, Baglay seemed to hint that there was a gap, noting that India had been getting repeated requests for help in finding evidence against Jadhav, as well as the December 2016 statement by Sartaj Aziz, the foreign affairs advisor to Pakistan’s prime minister, about the absence of “conclusive evidence”. “I will leave it up to you to draw the conclusion,” Baglay said.
In Islamabad, the Pakistan army chief presided over a meeting of the corps commanders on Thursday where the top army officers were “briefed” on Jadhav. “It was concluded that no compromise shall be made on such anti-state acts,” said the statement issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations Department of Pakistan army.