Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Qatar court hands death sentence to 8: What are India’s options now?


Watch | Qatar court hands death sentence to 8: What are India’s options now?

The government says it is shocked by the verdict in the case against 8 men, all formerly with the Indian Navy who have been convicted in a Qatari trial this week, and sentenced to death. Before we go further, let’s tell you about this case, that has after the case of Commander Jadhav in Pakistan, has become one of the Modi government’s biggest diplomatic challenges. 

August 30, 2022: The 8 Indian nationals, including 7 former Naval Commanders and Captains and one former Naval sailor were arrested by Qatari authorities, allegedly on charges of espionage- the exact charges, evidence and the detailed judgement haven’t been provided to the families of those accused yet. According to reports, including one by Qatar’s otherwise prolific Al Jazeera network suggested that secrets pertaining to Qatar’s stealth submarine programme were leaked to Israel 

Remember the officers have all had stellar records in service, and Commander Purnendu Tiwari was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman in 2019 by President Kovind. Their families have maintained their innocence of all the charges.

Names of the retired officers on trial: 

Captain Navtej Singh Gill, Captain Saurabh Vashisht, Commander Purnendu Tiwari, Captain Birendra Kumar Verma, Commander Sugunakar Pakala, Commander Sanjeev Gupta, Commander Amit Nagpal and Sailor Ragesh. 

The Omani owner of the company Dahra Global Technologies and Consulting Services was also arrested, but released on bail in November 2022.  

March 2023: Trial begins in the case  

May 2023: Dahra Global company shuts down  

October 1: Indian Ambassador to Qatar met the 8 men in prison, was given consular access 

October 3: 7th hearing in the case in Court of First Instance   

October 26: Court hands down guilty verdict in the case of espionage, pronounces death sentence  

Given the sensitive nature of the case, neither the government, Qatari authorities or the families have spoken very openly about the case. The one exception was tweets by a family member Dr. Meetu Bhargava-  who confirmed their incarceration. With the sentencing now done, all pleas by the families, and Indian government thus far, appear to have fallen on deaf ears in Doha 

Since it first acknowledged the case, the MEA says it has done everything possible, including 

  1. Raising the issue at every level, lobbying for their release 
  2. Pushing for consular access to the men in prison 
  3. Facilitating the families to travel and stay in Qatar, helping with lawyers and the legal process 
  • In June 2022, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu visited Doha, while the arrests had not been made at the time, no mention of the investigation that must have been well underway, was made.  
  • In November 2022, the new VP Jagdeep Dhankar travelled to Doha for the FIFA World Cup, and even addressed the Indian diaspora, but again no mention was made of his conversations with the Qatari leadership at the time.
  • NSA Doval is believed to have visited Qatar to intercede on the men’s behalf, but apparently to little avail 
  • EAM S. Jaishankar, who had visited Qatar several times in previous years, has not made a visit yet but spoke in December in Parliament, and more recently in June, at an MEA briefing, to a question I posed. 
  • With the power structure in Qatar firmly with the Royal Al-Thani family, whom PM Modi has met on occasions including a bilateral visit to Doha in 2016, the question is, will the PM intervene at his level for clemency?
    Let’s tell you a bit about the bilateral and Geopolitical undertones to the crisis: 

Let’s tell you a bit about the bilateral and Geopolitical undertones to the crisis: 

  1. India and Qatar have traditionally good bilateral ties  
  2. Their bilateral trade, of about $15 bn has been growing, mainly on the backs of LNG and LPG from Qatar to India, and exports of Chemicals, construction material, iron, copper and food items from India to Qatar- India is among the top three largest export destinations for Qatar and is also among the top three sources of Qatar’s imports, along with China and Japan. Qatar supplies 42% of India LNG imports 
  3. India and Qatar have signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement in 2008, due to be renewed now- India trains Qatari military at NDC and IMA, and participates in regular exercises with the Qatari navy.
  4.  700,000 Indians live and work in Qatar- the largest expatriate community, where Indians are double the numbers of about 313,000 Qatari citizens, working as professionals, doctors, nurses, teachers, bankers apart from labour 
  5. Qatar hosted the Taliban prior to their takeover of Kabul in 2021, and was key to negotiations with them- Doha Accords. EAM Jaishankar made several visits to Doha for talks with the Taliban. In 2015, Qatar helped India free an Indian Priest kidnapped by the Taliban Father Alexander Prem Kumar.  
  6. During the 2017 blockade by UAE, KSA, Egypt and Bahrain on Qatar, India continued its supplies to Doha, and didn’t need to evacuate its citizens as other countries did

However, in recent years, India’s other forays in the Gulf region have impacted ties with Qatar, which is seen as more allied with Iran and ranged against UAE and KSA, 

  • Qatar’s isolation in the Gulf has meant that it is not in favour India’s dealings with Saudi Arabia and UAE 
  • Qatar has traditionally supported the Muslim Brotherhood, and leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah apart from the Taliban, travel through and stay there- this has increased suspicions of its links to terror groups, although it is also a convenient conduit for negotiations with these groups 
  • Along with Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia, Qatar has been seen as the challengers to the UAE-KSA combine in the OIC, and the closeness with Pakistan in particular has been a red flag for India 
  • Qatar and Israel have been inimical to each other, and India’s growing ties with Israel have not gone down well with the Qatari leadership 
  • In addition India has joined US-led initiatives like I2U2 and the new IMEEEC (India Middle East Europe Economic Corridor), and the US has indicated it thinks the Hamas attacks on Oct 7 targeted regional integration moves as well as the Abraham Accords between Israel and the Arab world 
  • In recent years, Qatar media has expressed concern about the Modi government’s treatment of minorities, and the Qatari leadership snubbed VP Naidu during his visit, cancelling a banquet in his honour over remarks against the prophet by a BJP leader
  •  At the present moment, some have suggested that perceptions of India’s support for Israel over the Gaza bombings have strained ties with Qatar further- and the fact that the 8 Indians have reportedly been accused of spying for Israel makes the timing of the verdict significant 

 It is hard to say, however, that the trial of the 8 Indians and the verdict is directly linked to these geopolitical factors. So what are India’s options now? 

  1. Pursue legal appeals in the case
  2.  Resolve the case diplomatically 
  3. Political intervention at the Prime Minister’s level to request a pardon- if the Qataris agree to commute the sentences to life terms, India could use a 2016 agreement on transfer of sentenced prisoners, to bring them back to India to serve their terms out 
  4. Build an international campaign to appeal for clemency 
  5. File a case at the International Court of Justice as it did with the Jadhav case in Pakistan

As examples of what other countries have done at times: 

  • Through the cold war, US and Russia held spy swaps 
  • In 2006, Israel carried out a naval blockade of Lebanon and bombed Hezbollah held areas after two IDF soldiers were taken hostage by Hezbollah. 5 years later, Israel was able to bring back one of those soldiers Gilad Shalit alive, after releasing 1027 mostly Palestinian prisoners 
  • In 2012 after India arrested 2 Italian marines for the killing of Indian fishermen off the coast of Kerala, Italy mounted diplomatic pressure, including blocking India’s membership in a Missile grouping MTCR. Eventually, India freed the Italian soldiers in 2016 on humanitarian grounds 

WV Take: With the conviction of the 8 Indian citizens and former naval servicemen, the case for their release is a legal and diplomatic, but also a humanitarian one. The government must make the case its focus in targeted attempts to negotiate with the Qatari leadership, which will need an intervention right at the top. This is not the time to stand on protocol, but move with speed, and perhaps more diplomacy than brinkmanship. 

WV Reading Recommendations: 

  1. West Asia At War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games Kindle Edition by Talmiz Ahmad 
  2. Persian Gulf – India’s Relations with the Region 21-22. PR Kumaraswamy, Sameena Hameed and Mudassir Qamar 
  3. About Qatar and the region 
  4. Qatar: A Modern History Illustrated Edition by Allen J. Fromherz 
  5. The Arabs: A History by Eugene Rogan 
  6. Qatar: Small State, Big Politics by Mehran Kamrava 
    On Spy stories: 
  7. The Secret World : A History of Intelligence by Christopher Andrew 
  8. SPY SWAP: The Humiliation of Putin’s Intelligence Services by Nigel West 
  9. Spy Stories Cathy Scott Clark and Adrian Levy- who call themselves the Gavrilov Channel, referring to Russia-US spy swap communications- but between India and Pakistan 
  10. Bridge Of Spies by Giles Whitell  



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