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Indian diplomat accused of spying for Pakistan

Madhuri Gupta was reportedly lured back to India, detained upon arrival and found to be in possession of 7 sensitive documents. The incident could hurt relations between the wary nuclear neighbors.

April 28, 2010|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New Delhi —

An Indian diplomat was arrested by her government on charges of spying for Pakistan, officials said Tuesday, a development that could hurt relations between the wary nuclear neighbors and almost certainly leave New Delhi red-faced.

Madhuri Gupta, 53, a second secretary at the Indian Embassy in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, was reportedly lured back to India on the pretext that her help was needed to prepare for an upcoming regional meeting in Bhutan.

She was detained as soon as she landed at the airport several days ago and was found to be in possession of seven sensitive documents, according to Indian news reports.

"We have reason to believe that an official in the Indian High Commission in Islamabad had been passing information to Pakistani intelligence agencies," said Vishnu Prakash, spokesperson for the Indian Foreign Ministry. "The official is cooperating with our investigation and inquiries."

Gupta has worked in the embassy's press and information department for 2 1/2 years as an Urdu translator, Indian news reports said, citing police sources. She had been under suspicion for a few months.

As a second secretary, Gupta probably would not have had much access to sensitive information, said B. Raman, a security analyst and former Pakistan desk head with the Research and Analysis Wing, India's equivalent of the CIA. But she still could have caused significant damage if she planted electronic listening devices, he said.

In the 1970s, he said, India caught a British telephone operator in its Paris Embassy taping conversations and feeding them to British intelligence services. The operator was fired.

Red flags reportedly went up after Gupta, who is unmarried, started asking questions outside her area of responsibility and was found to have funds in a Pakistani account, the Times Now news network reported. She has since confessed that she was lured by the money and motivated by unhappiness over not being promoted, the network said.

Analysts said cellphone intercepts may also have played a role, along with the suspicions raised by embassy colleagues.

A picture of Gupta obtained by news networks showed a round-faced woman with glasses and shoulder-length dark hair.

Although many questions about the alleged intelligence gathering remain unanswered, analysts said, the news will almost certainly lead to soul searching at India's Foreign Ministry and among counter-intelligence officials responsible for screening embassy staff members.

"Any disclosure of intelligence activities involving Indian diplomats is embarrassing," said Raman, now director of the Institute for Topical Studies in the southern Indian city of Chennai.

Some expressed outrage on hearing the news, especially in light of attempts to revive talks between the longtime enemies.

"Even as Pakistan talks about having prime minister-level talks, they go ahead with intelligence activities," said Ajit Doval, former head of the Intelligence Bureau, India's equivalent of the FBI. "It doesn't send the right signal."

Others said there were no angels in this game.

"This is standard practice worldwide," said Imtiaz Gul, executive director of Islamabad's Center for Research and Security Studies. "America, Britain, India or Pakistan — they all do it. It obviously comes to a halt once discovered."

It's not clear that Gupta will face prosecution, analysts said, given the high bar required to prove a legal case and reluctance to disclose secrets in court.

In the 1980s, Pakistani intelligence allegedly recruited a senior Indian military attache using a "honey trap" involving an attractive woman in Karachi who reportedly seduced and blackmailed him. When the government found out, it returned him to India and fired him but never prosecuted him. "It's sometimes very difficult to prove," Raman said. "You need evidence from people in Pakistan, which is difficult to get."

Details of Gupta's career track were not immediately available, but her age and low-level position suggested that she was not a career foreign service officer.

A properly trained Indian civil service official might be less "susceptible to foreign inducements," Kapil Sibal, India's human resources minister, said outside the parliament. "That they were able to penetrate the embassy is shocking."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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