Detention of Indian merchants may figure in China talks

Beijing: The plight of 21 Indian diamond merchants from Gujarat languishing in Chinese jails since January this year is expected to come up during talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao in New Delhi.

Wen will arrive in New Delhi tomorrow on a three-day visit, billed as a "significant event" by China.

The detention of the Indian merchants, who were accused of smuggling diamonds into China through Hong Kong, was expected to come up during Singh-Wen talks, sources said.

The merchants were held in a prison at the Chinese city of Guangzhou and so far have not been formally charged, pending investigations.

Chinese authorities have permitted certain facilities like providing vegetarian food and other facilities at the request of Indian officials and family members of the merchants.

The issue figured during the strategic talks between Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and Vice Chinese Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun here last month.

After the talks, she said several of the merchants were not keeping well and efforts were on to find whether they could be released after paying fine.

According to officials, the issue has become complicated as India and China have no prisoner exchange agreement.

Asked during the briefing here today whether the merchants detention would figure in Wen’s talks with Indian leaders, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu said she "cannot predict" what kind of issues will come up during the discussions.

The talks between Wen and Indian leaders would focus on promoting bilateral relations as well as regional and international issues of common concerns in an "extensive manner", she said.

The visit comes amid the bilateral row over stapled visas for residents of Jammu and Kashmir that culminated in denying visa to Chief of Indian Army's Northern Command, B S Jaswal. It prompted New Delhi to put on hold all defence exchanges with China.