A United Nations court on Thursday ordered Pakistan not to execute an accused Indian spy pending its final verdict in a case that has gripped the rival countries.
In a provisional win for India, the International Court of Justice stayed the execution of Kulbhushan Jadhav, a retired Indian naval officer whom Pakistan arrested last year and convicted of espionage.
"Pakistan shall take all measures at its disposal to ensure that Mr. Jadhav is not executed pending the final decision in these proceedings," the court at The Hague said in a unanimous order.
The judges said India had a "plausible" argument that Pakistan violated international law by refusing to grant consular access to Jadhav. The court rejected Pakistan's claim at a hearing on Monday that the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations did not apply because the case involved an alleged spy.
Over the coming months, the court said, it would hear both countries' arguments on whether Indian diplomats should be allowed to visit Jadhav before issuing a verdict.
India said it took the rare step of appealing to the U.N. court after Pakistan denied 16 requests for its diplomats to visit Jadhav, and because it felt Jadhav's execution could be imminent.
Sushma Swaraj, India's external affairs minister, said the court order "has come as a great relief to the family of Kulbhushan Jadhav and people of India." Outside Jadhav's childhood house in the coastal city of Mumbai, friends and well wishers celebrated by setting off firecrackers and distributing sweets.
Pakistan's attorney general's office said the order did not affect the final outcome of the case. While not commenting specifically on the order to halt the execution, the office said in a statement that Jadhav "still has ample time to petition for clemency."
"As far as Pakistan is concerned, the court's decision today has not changed the status of Commander Jadhav's case in any manner," the statement said.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif scheduled a national security meeting on Friday to discuss the court order. Opposition politicians signaled frustration at the outcome and criticized Sharif's government over its handling of the case.
Pakistan alleges that Jadhav was working as an Indian spy when he was arrested in the southwestern province of Baluchistan in March 2016. The Indian government has denied the allegation, saying Jadhav was arrested in Iran, where he was on a business trip, and later convicted on the basis of a forced confession.
The case is being closely watched in both countries, nuclear-armed rivals that have fought three wars since 1947 and accused each other of fomenting violence over the past year in the disputed Kashmir territory.
While Indian partisans celebrated the court order, experts said Pakistan's powerful military could still take the high-risk decision to proceed with the execution and defy the court — for which there is precedent.
In 1998, a Paraguayan man was executed for murder in Virginia despite the international court's order urging the United States to halt his execution in a similar case involving the right to consular access. The court order was not legally binding in the U.S.