The Indian government said last week that it is exploring all legal options after a court in Qatar sentenced eight former Indian naval officers to death on charges of espionage. The Indian men were arrested on 30 August 2022 by Qatar's intelligence agency, on charges of spying for Israel.
The Indian officers were accused of working to obtain information that would help Israel in taking forward a secret, high-tech programme to build Italian mini-submarines for the Israeli navy.
The eight Indians were employed by a private company called Al Dahra Global Technologies and Consultancy Services. This was providing, amongst other things, security solutions and training to Qatari security agencies.
Neither the Qatari authorities nor New Delhi have revealed the specific charges against them, but they were serious enough for the government to shut down the company last May.
Meanwhile, Doha is trying to negotiate with the Palestinian militant group Hamas for the release of over 200 hostages seized during its 7 October rampage in Israel. The Jewish state is pummelling Gaza with aerial strikes in response.
The charges were filed against the eight Indian Navy veterans on 25 March and they will be tried under Qatari law. Their bail petitions were rejected several times and the guilty verdict against them was pronounced on Thursday by the Court of First Instance in Qatar.
Despite attempts by India and Qatar to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels, there has been no breakthrough over the past year.
'No Submarine Deal, No Consultancy Done for Anything Related to Submarines'
Qatar and India share a patchy relationship, even though Doha likes the trappings of democracy, such as the Arabic-English news channel, Al Jazeera. Qatar funded the Taliban and provided them with an office in Doha while negotiations were under way with the Taliban. Qatar also maintains its relationship with Iran carefully.
On Thursday, the Indian government said it was shocked by the Qatari verdict and would take up the matter with its counterparts in Doha. According to Qatari law, the accused personnel have 15 days to prepare and submit their appeals.
The arrested Indian officers have the right to approach international judicial bodies to appeal the verdict of the Qatari courts. However, Indian foreign ministry officials, such as former Indian ambassador to Qatar, KP Fabian, say it would be more productive to settle this bilaterally with the government of Qatar.
However, the Qatari government is fuming over public statements from Nupur Sharma, a political activist from the right wing, government-linked organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Last year, in parliament, foreign minister S Jaishankar described the eight persons as "ex-servicemen" of the country. The families of some of the men have also confirmed their identities and background in the Navy to local media.
According to Admiral Arun Prakash, a former chief of the Indian Navy who is in touch with the families and relatives of the arrested persons, the officers have been in solitary confinement for the last one year and have had no idea that their colleagues had been taken into custody as well by the Qatari government.
Admiral Prakash says he has been assured by the accused and their relatives that “there was no submarine deal, no consultancy done for anything related to submarines… This theory I owe to someone’s wild imagination,” he said.
He adds that the family members of the eight men accused of purloining submarine secrets “had no access to anything classified and, therefore, they simply couldn’t have shared it. All information (relating to submarine building) was spoken of in friendly conversations and are completely open source.”
"We are in touch with the family members and the legal team, and we are exploring all legal options," the ministry said, adding that it would not make further comment right now because of the "confidential nature of proceedings of this case".
An Energy Headache for New Delhi
The arrest of Indian Navy personnel last August had made front-page headlines in India and, for the government in New Delhi, this constitutes a potential political minefield. The arrested workers have consistently sought consular access, which the government says it has provided.
For example, the ongoing diplomatic tensions could adversely impact relations between the two countries. There are over 8-9 million Indians who work in West Asia and remit their salaries to their families in India. Of these, more than 8,00,000 Indian workers live and work in Qatar.
The case could also become an energy headache for New Delhi, which depends heavily on Qatar for its natural gas needs.
Qatar, one of the world’s biggest exporters of liquified natural gas (LNG) has been in negotiations with New Delhi for securing a long-term LNG contract with Doha, the Qatari capital.
In 2021, India was the world’s fourth-largest LNG importer, which procured more than 40 per cent of its stocks from Qatar, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, Qatari officials say that India is Doha’s second-largest trade partner.
(Colonel Ajai Shukla [Retired] is a columnist, commentator and journalist who covers regional security issues in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific, military technology and India’s defence economy. He writes primarily for Business Standard, India’s most respected business daily, but also for The New York Times, Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera and South China Morning Post. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)