India & Pakistan

Shadow wars

Print edition : May 12, 2017

A Pakistan Army spokesperson announcing the capture of Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav at a press conference in Islamabad on March 29, 2016. Photo: AP/Anjum Naveed

A file photo of Kulbhushan Jadhav. Photo: PTI

Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister. She has said that India will go out of its way to rescue Jadhav from the hangman's noose. Photo: PTI

Abdul Basit, Pakistan's High Commissioner to India. He said Jadhav was tried by a military court since he was a serving Indian officer. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

The death sentence awarded by a military court in Pakistan to Kulbushan Jadhav, a retired Commander of the Indian Navy accused of espionage activities, is threatening the shaky relations between the two countries.

IN the first week of April, a military court in Pakistan, the Field General Court Martial (FGCM), awarded the death penalty to Kulbushan Jadhav, a retired Commander of the Indian Navy, on charges of carrying out espionage and terrorist activities. According to Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the Defence Minister of Pakistan, the former Indian naval officer was convicted after a trial which lasted more than three and a half months. Sartaj Aziz, Foreign Policy Adviser to the Pakistan Prime Minister and the country’s de facto Foreign Minister, said in the second week of April that the trial was conducted in a fair and transparent manner under the laws of the land. “His sentence is based on credible, specific evidence proving his involvement in espionage and terrorist activities in Pakistan,” Aziz asserted. He revealed that “a letter of assistance” was sent to the Indian government in late January this year asking for specific information and access to certain key witnesses. Aziz said that there was no response from the Indian side.

Jadhav was arrested in March last year. The Pakistani authorities claim that he was operating under an assumed name in the restive province of Balochistan. The charges under which he was tried included “sponsoring terrorism” and working against the integrity of the Pakistani state. According to Aziz, Jadhav was found guilty of aiding and abetting terrorist activities in Balochistan, including sponsoring and directing attacks on Gwadar port and gas pipelines.

Jadhav has the right to appeal against the verdict to an appellate court within 40 days. If the Pakistan Army’s Court of Appeal upholds the death sentence, then he can submit a mercy plea to the Pakistan Army chief within 60 days and to the country’s President within 90 days. Jadhav also has the option to approach a High Court if he feels that due process was not observed or his fundamental rights were violated. It is clear that the death sentence, if at all it is implemented, will not be done in a hurry. Alleged spies on both sides of the border are known to languish for years in jails before they are freed. But Jadhav is by far the most high-profile Indian prisoner that Pakistan has ever had in its custody.

The announcement about the death sentence seems to have taken the Indian government by surprise. It was trying various means, including using diplomatic and other channels, to get the former naval officer released. One of the reasons for the Pakistani announcement could have been the mysterious disappearance of one of its own retired military officers, Lt Col. Mohammad Habib, while he was on a trip to Nepal, in early April. His rank, coincidentally, is equivalent to that of a Commander in the Indian Navy. Reports in the Pakistani media said that the officer went missing near Nepal’s border with India. India has denied that the Pakistani officer is in its custody. The view in the Pakistani security establishment is that the “disappearance” was organised by India’s intelligence agencies to prepare the ground for a possible “prisoner swap” in the near future.

Detailed dossier

The Pakistani military and allied intelligence agencies have apparently prepared a detailed dossier on Jadhav’s alleged activities inside Pakistan, along with a list of Pakistani citizens who have since been arrested. Among the first whose arrest was made public is a notorious character by the name of Uzair Baloch, who has links with politicians and the underworld. Baloch, however, has been accused of receiving funds routed through Iranian intelligence agencies for carrying out assignments to destabilise Karachi, Pakistan’s key commercial hub. Baloch, according to Pakistani intelligence agencies, had made Chabahar port his base of operations. Some Pakistani officials close to the country’s intelligence and security services have been implying that the Iranian security services allowed Jadhav to operate from the port city of Chabahar under an assumed identity.

The Indian government insists that Jadhav was spirited away from Iran and taken across the border to Balochistan. Some reports quoted a former German diplomat, Guntar Mulack, as saying that he believed Jadhav was picked up from Iranian territory by Taliban fighters and handed over to Pakistan. The diplomat has now said that his information was based “on an unconfirmed speculation from a reliable source” and could have been incorrect. Iran has strongly refuted allegations of involvement in espionage or destabilisation efforts aimed against Pakistan. The Iranian embassy in Islamabad issued a statement in the third week of April condemning the “dissemination of such baseless” news aimed at influencing public opinion in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) said that it picked up Jadhav on March 3 last year in the Mashkel area of Balochistan. The ISI claims that the naval officer confessed to working for India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), to destabilise Pakistan through acts of espionage and sabotage. In the “confessional video” which was released by Pakistan soon after his arrest, Jadhav is shown admitting to India’s alleged involvement in terrorist activities in Balochistan and the port city of Karachi. Lt Gen. Asim Bajwa, spokesman for the ISI, claimed that Jadhav’s main brief was to disrupt the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through Balochistan. Bajwa alleged that the Gwadar port, which is located in the province, was designated as a “special target” by India’s intelligence agencies.

Allegations about the Indian government’s involvement in Balochistan are not new. In fact, in a joint statement issued during the 2009 Sharm El Sheikh Non-Aligned Movement summit after a meeting between Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers, Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani, India admitted to being involved in clandestine activities in Balochistan. Both sides pledged to stop interfering in each other’s affairs. Relations between the two countries have steadily gone downhill since then, especially after the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance was voted to power. Last year, Modi publicly declared India’s support for the liberation struggle in Balochistan. The two sides have not held meaningful talks at a high level since Modi became Prime Minister three years ago. The country’s Pakistan policy seems to be run from the Prime Minister’s Office, with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, the former RAW chief, calling the shots.

Pakistani officials have indicated that they will soon be releasing a list of their citizens who were in close contact with Jadhav. They say that there is no question of Jadhav being let off in exchange for the missing Pakistani military officer, who is reportedly in Indian custody. Pakistani officials claim that the missing officer had no connection with the country’s intelligence services. Anyone with a background in intelligence services would not have walked into the trap set for him, they claim. The officer was lured into Nepal with the promise of a high-paying post-retirement job.

Vocal protests

The news of Jadhav’s sentencing elicited strong protests from parties cutting across the political divide. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told Parliament that “India would go out of its way” to rescue Jadhav from the hangman’s noose. Describing Jadhav as a “son of India”, she warned Pakistan of undesirable consequences if the death sentence was carried out. “I would caution the Pakistani government to consider the consequences for our bilateral relationship if they proceed on the matter,” she said, adding that there was “no evidence of wrongdoing” against the former naval officer. She claimed that Jadhav was engaged in legitimate business activities in Iran. The Lok Sabha was unanimous in its condemnation of the Pakistan military court’s judgment. The Pakistan High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, was summoned by the External Affairs Ministry and handed a demarche which warned that in case the sentence against the Indian citizen was carried out, India would “treat it as a case of premeditated murder”.

The Pakistan High Commissioner, in an interview he gave to an Indian publication, said that Jadhav continued to be a “serving Indian (Navy) officer” and that was the reason why he was tried in a military court. Pakistan says that its investigations and interrogations show that Jadhav never retired from service and was working for the Indian Navy’s intelligence wing. Basit said that Jadhav had been visiting Pakistan since 2003, using a genuine Indian passport but under the assumed name of Mubarak Hussain Patel. The Pakistani diplomat said that a preliminary dossier of Jadhav’s clandestine activities was sent to the United Nations Secretary-General’s office last year.

Denied consular access

The Indian government is demanding immediate consular access to Jadhav. The Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Gautam Bambawale, met with Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary, Tehmina Janjua, to discuss the issue for the first time on April 14. Bambawale said that the government had consistently demanded access to Jadhav after his arrest had been announced last year. He told the media that it was the 14th time that a formal request was being made for consular access. Bambawale said that India had also asked for a copy of the charge sheet against Jadhav. Pakistani officials said that consular access was denied to Jadhav since it was a case involving alleged espionage and that it was standard practice in court martial cases. Indian officials are of the view that consular access is being denied so that the circumstances under which Jadhav was captured remained shrouded in mystery. High Commissioner Basit said that consular access was not “automatic”, especially when a case was “sensitive and related to matters of security”. According to some reports, Islamabad has, however, decided to hand over copies of the court order and the charge sheet against Jadhav to the Indian authorities.

The government, however, is not satisfied with the explanations provided by Pakistan. Diplomatic relations between the two countries, already at a low, are not likely to improve in the near future. India announced the postponement of the maritime security dialogue with Pakistan, which was scheduled to be held in mid April. The two sides were to discuss issues relating to fishermen from both countries who are languishing in jails. Many of the fishermen have been incarcerated for inadvertently crossing the maritime borders.

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