Qatar death sentence for eight Indian former naval officers sparks political row

Charges against the prisoners have not been made public but media reports say they were convicted under espionage laws

The eight men sentenced were reportedly employed on a defence project in Qatar to build midget submarines. Reuters
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The death penalty on eight former Indian Navy officers accused of spying in Qatar has sparked a political row in India as opposition leaders cornered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government over its inability to rescue its citizens.

Leaders from the main opposition Indian National Congress and others have demanded that Mr Modi act to bring the men back home.

Anil Trigunayat, India's former ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta, told The National that he hoped the crisis over the men's fate would be resolved soon to avoid disrupting India's "strong relationship" with Qatar.

“The details of the entire case are shrouded in mystery and opacity. Trust the MEA and Prime Minister’s Office will act immediately with the highest levels of the Qatar government to support an appeal and bring them home,” said Shashi Tharoor, senior Congress leader.

His colleague, Manish Tewari, said the Bharatiya Janata Party government had failed in its diplomacy to rescue the men.

The eight former Indian Navy personnel, including decorated officers, were working for Dahra Global Technologies and Consultancy Services, a private company that provided training and related services to Qatar's armed forces. They were reportedly arrested on charges of espionage last year.

Mr Tewari had raised the issue of the incarceration as well as the charges against the men, which have not been made public by either Qatari or Indian authorities, in parliament in December last year.

“Had Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar or MEA been serious then things would never have come to this pass that the eight Navy men would have been sentenced to death for an alleged offence whose details are still unknown,” Mr Tewari said.

“The BJP government for all its muscular nationalism has completely failed to protect the dignity, honour and lives of our ex-servicemen.”

"Since the major issues leading to their arrest are still not fully in the public domain the Qatari First Court decision is highly shocking in the public perception since New Delhi and Doha have excellent strategic ties," Mr Trigunayat told The National.

"Hopefully the higher court of appeal will provide the unfairly accused Indian detainees a fair chance to defend themselves in which the government of India provides them all legal and consular assistance. I believe this issue ought to be resolved fast to remove the irritants in an otherwise strong relationship," he said.

Asaduddin Owaisi, a parliamentarian from All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen, who too had raised the issue in parliament, said the death penalty was unfortunate and appealed to the government to bring the Indian citizens home.

“In August, I had raised the issue of our ex-naval officers stuck in #Qatar. Today they have been sentenced to death. Narendra Modi has boasted about how much 'Islamic countries' love him. He must bring our ex-naval officers back. It’s very unfortunate that they face death row,” he said.

The reactions came a day after Mr Modi’s government announced that the Court of First Instance of Qatar had handed down the death penalty to the eight former officers.

Who are the eight men?

The men have been identified as Capt Navtej Singh Gill, Cdr Purenendu Tiwari, Capt Saurabh Vasisht, Cdr Sanjeev Gupta, Capt Birendra Kumar Verma, Cdr Sugunakar Pakala, Cdr Amit Nagpal and Sailor Ragesh.

All of them worked for up to 20 years in the Indian Navy and have held important positions.

Cdr Tiwari in 2019 was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, the highest honour conferred on overseas Indians by the Indian embassy in Doha for enhancing India's image abroad.

The group worked at Dahra, a defence service provider organisation.

They were reportedly working on a sensitive project to build midget submarines that have stealth capabilities and are hard to detect.

They are accused of spying on behalf of Israel, according to media reports, and were arrested in August last year. The owner of the company was also arrested, but was reportedly released in November last year.

The men had their first trial in March. New Delhi was providing consular access to the eight prisoners and had tried to secure their release, but Doha had reportedly informed them that there was evidence against the officers suggesting that they passed on intelligence to Israel.

India-Doha relations

New Delhi and Doha co-operate in diverse sectors led by historically close ties and enjoy regular and substantive engagement.

India's bilateral trade with Qatar in 2021-2022 was $15.03 billion. India’s exports to Qatar during 2021-2022 were $1.83 billion and India’s imports from Qatar were $13.19 billion, according to the Indian government.

There are more than 800,000 Indian citizens living in Qatar – the largest expatriate community in the tiny oil-rich nation – who are engaged in a wide range of professions including medicine, engineering, education and finance, as well as a large number of blue-collar workers, according to government data.

The Foreign Ministry in India on Wednesday said that it will take up the court’s verdict with Qatari authorities to secure the release of its citizens.

Updated: December 29, 2023, 5:09 AM