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Death Sentence for 8 Ex-Navy Officers: A Litmus Test for India-Qatar Relations

The verdict by the Court of First Instance of Qatar comes at a curious time, writes Aditi Bhaduri.

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On 26 October, news broke that the eight former Indian naval officers arrested by Qatar in August 2022 on charges of spying for Israel had been sentenced to death.

The accused have been identified as Captain Navtej Singh Gill, Captain Birendra Kumar Verma, Captain Saurabh Vasisht, Commander Amit Nagpal, Commander Purnendu Tiwari, Commander Sugunakar Pakala, Commander Sanjeev Gupta, and Sailor Ragesh.

All of them are ex-Indian Navy and were employed by Dahra Global, working on the induction of stealth submarines into the Qatari Navy.

The Ministry of External Affairs announced that it was "...deeply shocked by the verdict of the death penalty and is awaiting the detailed judgment."

"We are in touch with the family members and the legal team and we are exploring all legal options," it added.

It also said that India attaches "high importance to this case, and has been following it closely. We will continue to extend all consular and legal assistance. We will also take up the verdict with Qatari authorities."
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Qatar has made no public statements about the convictions, or the trial conducted by the Court of First Instance in Qatar has been opaque, and charges have not been made public either.

Given the sensitivity of the charges, the verdict comes at an inopportune time when the Middle East is once again engulfed in war between Israel and Hamas.

While Qatar is trying to mediate between Hamas and Israel for the Israeli civilians kidnapped by Hamas, the war is increasingly looking like it is has spiralled out of control and threatens to reopen the old fault lines in the region.

India, thus, has little room to maneuver.

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What are India's Options?

The Financial Times has reported that a person briefed on the case had confirmed to it that the eight Indians had been charged with spying for Israel and would be able to appeal against their sentences.

India will apparently be reaching out to top legal experts in Qatar to appeal the sentence in the higher court, while it will also pursue a mercy petition to the Emir of Qatar, who has the right to pardon.

Another option is to activate the transfer of prisoners agreement that was signed in 2015 between India and Qatar during the state visit of the Emir of Qatar, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

According to this agreement, a person convicted of a crime can be transferred to his or her home country to serve the prison sentence. But for this, the death sentence has to be converted to imprisonment.

And finally, India may approach the International Court of Justice.

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Pattern of Duality in Qatar’s Approach to India

On the face of it, India and Qatar have a robust trade relationship.

India is Qatar's second largest trade partner and bilateral trade reached $17.2 billion in 2022, recording an increase from the previous year. Qatar is the top supplier of liquified natural gas (LNG) to India, supplying it with more than 40 percent of its requirements.

Around 7 lakh Indians live and work in Qatar contributing handsomely to the Qatari and Indian economies.

Thousands of Indian companies are active in Qatar while the emirate's $450 billion sovereign wealth fund has substantial investments in India and is planning more.

When fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members imposed a blockade on Qatar, India helped airlift food products and other supplies to it. There is cooperation in defense between the two countries as well.

Yet, observers of bilateral relations will notice a pattern of duality in Qatar’s approach to India. Last year, during the Nupur Sharma controversy, Qatar took the lead in hurling charges of Islamophobia against India, summoning the Indian ambassador in Doha, and even demanding an apology.

What was interesting was that it came almost a week after the event had occurred.

Yet, Qatar extended citizenship to late painter M F Hussein, who was charged by millions of Hindus with the same accusation that Qatar had pointed at India – hurting the religious sentiments.

More recently Islamist preacher Zakir Naik wanted by India on terrorism abutment charges was allowed a platform by Qatar to publicly preach during the FIFA World Cup that Qatar hosted.

Al Jazeera, a media channel and geopolitical tool of Qatar, engages in, mildly put, tendentious coverage of India and things Indian. In its coverage of the India-Canada diplomatic spat over the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the channel seemed certain that charges levelled by Canada against India were certain even though Canada has not gone public with these charges yet.

Similarly, in the current Israel-Hamas war, Al Jazeera continues to broadcast a one-sided narrative of India's support for Israel, completely glossing over India's outreach to the Palestinians.

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A Litmus Test for India-Qatar Bilateral Relations

The verdict by the Court of First Instance of Qatar against the ex-Indian navy officers comes at a curious time.

It comes at a time when Qatar is trying to mediate the release of civilians among the more than 200 people the Palestinian militant group Hamas captured during its 7 October attack.

The country hosts the office of Hamas in Doha, where the leadership of Hamas was when the attacks on Israel occurred. Its cash transfers estimated to be to the tune of $2 billion to Gaza have helped prop up the Hamas there.

Qatar, recently designated a major non-NATO ally, and which hosts the US Central Command at its Al Udeid air base has engaged in mediation on a number of fronts in recent times.

Mediation has been a major thrust of Qatar's foreign policy since 2003 when the Permanent Constitution of the State of Qatar enshrined that Qatari foreign policy “is based on the principle of strengthening international peace and security by means of encouraging peaceful resolution of international disputes”.

Since 2012, Qatar has allowed the Taliban to open a representative office in Doha and has helped broker the Doha Accords between the US and Taliban, helping to ensconce this still UN-designated terror group in power in Kabul.

But Qatar has been punching much above its weight, pursuing an aggressive foreign policy in West Asia, intervening in the Arab Spring, backing Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and affiliated groups like Ennahda in Tunisia, Hamas in Gaza, even as it kept a distance from radicalism within its borders.

Such support for Islamist organisations ultimately led to a split between Qatar on one hand and its other Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt on the other, but apparently bridged over in recent times.

The 7th October attacks by Hamas in Israel have, however, spotlighted Qatar's role in maintaining ties with radical and militant groups. We do not know, of course, the intent in announcing the death sentence now to Indians on charges of spying for Israel. If linkages do appear in a later postmortem of this then it would not be surprising.

In any case, this issue will be a litmus test for India-Qatar bilateral relations.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Qatar   Indian Navy 

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