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Reduce embassy staff by 50% in 7 days

NEW DELHI, 23 JUNE. The Ministry of External Affairs summoned Pakistan's Charge d’ Affaires Syed Haidar Shah today and asked him to reduce staff at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi as India is concerned over their conduct. MEA officials informed Shah that India had repeatedly expressed concern about the activities of officials of his High Commission.

India pointed out the activities of the two Pakistan visa officials who were caught red-handed and expelled on May 31, 2020, after it emerged that they were spying.

The MEA also raised concern over the harassment of Indian officials in Pakistan.

On June 15, Pakistani authorities detained two officials of the Indian high commission in Islamabad in a case of alleged "hit and run" and released them after over 10 hours following India's strong demarche and a blunt message to Islamabad that the duo must be freed immediately.

The two staff members of the Indian mission in Islamabad, who were kept under detention for almost 12 hours, were picked up from a petrol station close to the high commission, people aware of the development said.

These embassy staffers were picked up at 8.30 am Pakistan time on Monday by a group of around 15-16 armed people who came in six vehicles. They were blindfolded with a rucksack thrown over their heads and handcuffed. The two staff members were then taken to an unknown location about 10 minutes from the place where they were picked up and interrogated for about six hours. They were repeatedly beaten with rods and wooden sticks and made to drink filthy water. The two Indian staffers were interrogated regarding the specific role and function of all high commission officials.

Reports in the Pakistani media had claimed that the Indian officials had been arrested after their car allegedly hit a pedestrian near the diplomatic enclave. The Indian officials told Hindustan Times that their kidnappers made multiple videos in which these staffers were forced to confess under duress that they had committed an accident. They were also threated and told that this is how the other members of the high commission would be treated in the future, the officials said.

The two men were handed back to the Indian high commission at around 9 pm. They were released after the Pakistani charge d’affaires in New Delhi was summoned to the foreign ministry for lodging a strong protest.

Though they were able to walk, the people said that the two Indian staffers carried extensive injury marks to their neck, face and thighs indicating extensive manhandling. No life threatening injuries have been detected so far in their medical examination.

A first information report (FIR) by Islamabad Police, accessed by HT, claimed fake Pakistani currency with a face value of Rs 10,000 was found in the car they were travelling in. These allegations were dismissed by the people cited above, who described them as false and baseless.

The incident was widely seen in New Delhi as retaliation for the Indian government’s decision to expel two officials of the Pakistan high commission who were apprehended on charges of spying on May 31.

India said that once the abducted Indian officials returned home on June 22, they provided graphic details of the barbaric treatment that they experienced at the hands of Pakistani agencies.

"The behaviour of Pakistan and its officials is not in conformity with the Vienna Convention and bilateral agreements on the treatment of diplomatic and consular officials. On the contrary, it is an intrinsic element of a larger policy of supporting cross-border violence and terrorism," the MEA officials added.

"Therefore, the Government of India has taken the decision to reduce the staff strength in the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi by 50 per cent. It would reciprocally reduce its own presence in Islamabad to the same proportion. This decision, which is to be implemented in seven days, was conveyed to the Pakistani Charge d’Affaires," they said.

Later, Pakistan on Tuesday rejected what it called “baseless allegations” by India of any violation of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations by its High Commission officials in New Delhi and asserted that they always function within the parameters of international law.

Indian Chargé d’ Affaires in Islamabad was summoned to convey Pakistan’s rejection and condemnation of the “baseless Indian allegations”, the Foreign Office said.

"The Indian Chargé d’ Affaires was also informed of Pakistan’s decision to reduce the Indian High Commission’s staff strength by 50 per cent as a reciprocal measure,” the FO said, adding that the Indian diplomat was asked to implement the decision conveyed to him within seven days.

Nearly a month ago, India expelled two Pakistan High Commission officials in New Delhi on charges of espionage. India had declared Abid Hussain and Muhammad Tahir as 'persona non grata' after they were found obtaining sensitive documents relating to the movement of Indian Army troops from an Indian national.

Following their expulsion, Pakistani agencies started harassing a number of mission officials in Islamabad including charge d'affaires Gaurav Ahluwalia. His car was aggressively tailed by Pakistani agencies on at least two occasions following which India lodged a strong protest with the Pakistan Foreign Office.

After the expulsion of the two Pakistani officials, it was expected that Pakistan would also resort to a tit-for-tat response, going by similar episodes in the past.

The diplomatic warfare comes in the midst of frayed ties between the two countries over the reorganisation of the status of Jammu and Kashmir by the Indian government.

Pakistan had downgraded diplomatic ties by expelling the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad following India's decision to withdraw the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August last year.

The last time India downgraded diplomatic ties by asking Pakistan to reduce the staff strength in its high commission was after the Parliament attack in December 2001. However, as relations improved by 2005, the staff strength at both missions returned to the normal level.

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