The move comes India has expelled a Pakistan high commission staffer after he was arrested by the Delhi police for being in possession of defence-related documents.
New Delhi: Late on Thursday night, Pakistan announced that Indian diplomat Surjeet Singh had been declared persona non grata for violating the Geneva Convention – meaning he was accused of spying – and asked him and his family to leave the country by October 29. The move comes after India has expelled a Pakistan high commission staff member, Mehmood Akhtar, following his arrest on Wednesday by the Delhi police for being in possession of defence-related documents.
Information about Akhtar’s arrest was conveyed by Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar to Pakistani High Commissioner Abdul Basit on Thursday morning. Basit was told that a Pakistan embassy staff member was now persona non grata and must leave Indian territory as soon as possible. The Indian high commissioner Gautam Bambawale was similarly summoned to the Pakistan foreign office late Thursday night to be informed about the expulsion of his colleague.
At his weekly briefing, MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup said that Mehmood Akhtar, assistant to the counsellor (trade) in the Pakistan high commission, had been in the cross-hairs of intelligence agencies for the last six months “relating to espionage on vital installations of army and paramilitary forces”.
He was “intercepted” by the Delhi police on Wednesday while “he was receiving a sensitive document pertaining to the national security of India from two persons”, added Swarup.
Delhi police said that all three were arrested at the Delhi Zoo at around 10 am. The other two have identified as Maulana Ramzan and Subhash Jangir, both residents of Rajasthan.
According to the spokesperson, Akhtar at first masqueraded as an Indian national named Mehboob Rajput and “even produced a fake Aadhaar card”. But when he was taken to the Chanakyapuri police station, he admitted to his real identity and requested that the high commission be informed of the developments.
“He (Akhtar) stated that he had joined the Baloch Regiment of the Pakistan Army in 1997 and came on deputation to the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) in 2013,” said Swarup.
He has been posted to the Pakistan high commission since September 2013 and was currently appointed as assistant to the counsellor (trade), Farukh Habib.
At a press conference, Delhi police’s joint commissioner (crime) Ravindra Yadav said that they recovered defence maps, BSF and army deployments along the border areas of Gujarat and Sir Creek, and a list of BSF and army personnel who have been transferred or have retired.
The senior police officer described Akhtar as the “kingpin” of the espionage network, which was active for about 18 months. When asked, Yadav did not rule out the involvement of other Pakistan high commission officials in the spy network.
Swarup said that Akhtar was “treated with utmost courtesy” and handed over to a diplomat of the Pakistan high commission.
Akhtar and his family have been told to leave India within 48 hours, by October 29.
“The foreign secretary also strongly conveyed to the Pak high commissioner that the Pak high commission must ensure that none of its members indulge in activities inimical to India or behave in a manner that is incompatible with their diplomatic status,” said Swarup.
The Pakistan foreign office claimed that its official had been “manhandled” and “lifted by Indian authorities yesterday on false and unsubstantiated charges”. “The Indian action has been accompanied by an extremely negative and orchestrated media campaign,” it added.
Pakistan condemned the accusation of espionage and interception of its officials as a “violation of the Vienna Convention as well as the norms of diplomatic conduct, especially in an already vitiated atmosphere”. Swarup later strongly rejected any claims of manhandling by Indian security forces.
Pakistan claimed that India’s move to accuse a Pakistani diplomat “reflects Indian actions to shrink diplomatic space for the working of the Pakistan high commission. The Pakistan foreign office termed them as attempts to “escalate the tensions and divert” international attention from Kashmir.
Meanwhile, Singh expulsion from Islamabad was expected, as South Block braced for Pakistan to declare an Indian high commission official as persona non grata in a reciprocal gesture.
These incidents have now become another notch in the race to the bottom in the current strained relations between the two South Asian neighbours, following the terror attack on the Indian army brigade headquarters in Uri.