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Qatar's Espionage Verdict

Qatar's Espionage Verdict

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In the News?

Eight retired Indian Navy veterans, seven officers, and one sailor were sentenced to death by a Qatari court for their involvement in espionage for a foreign state. 

Background on the case

  • Eight veterans, including seven officers, were arrested in October 2022 while working at Dahra Global Technologies and Consultancy Services, a defence services provider company.
  • An Omani national owns the company.
  • The company's website, previously linked to the Qatari Emiri Naval Force (QENF), has been taken down. The current website, renamed Dahra Global, no longer mentions its connection to QENF or the leadership roles of the seven officers.
  • Commander Purnendu Tiwari, the Managing Director of the company, received the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman award in 2019 for his contributions to strengthening the bilateral relationship between India and Qatar.
  • The majority of those in custody had been employed by Dahra for four to six years at the time of their arrest. 

Allegations against the detained Indian nationals in Qatar

  • The Indian nationals, who were employed by the Al Dahra company in Doha, were accused of violating confidential information.
  • They worked with Dahra Global Technologies and Consultant Services, where they allegedly trained other security-related service providers for the State of Qatar.
  • The company was involved in the production of advanced Italian-built submarines known for their stealth capabilities.

QatarItaly Submarine Agreement

  • Qatar signed an MoU with the Italian-based shipbuilding firm Fincantieri SpA in 2020 for submarine construction and naval base establishment. However, the MoU has not been implemented as of now.
  •  Fincantieri clarified that they currently have no submarine contracts with Qatar but continue work on other vessels based on a 2016 agreement with the Qatari Ministry of Defence.

Who are these eight people?

  • Captain Navtej Gill (Retd)
    • Captain Gill, a Chandigarh native and cadet, was awarded the President's Gold Medal. He served at DSSC, commanded INS Prabal, and was a navigating officer on INS Viraat.
  • Commander Sugunakar Pakala (Retd)
    • Commander Pakala, an engineering officer in the Navy, crossed the equator twice aboard INS Tarangini and was decorated. He worked briefly at Hindustan Shipyard Ltd. after retiring.
  • Captain Saurabh Vashisht (Retd)
    • Captain Vashisht, a Navy engineering officer, received commendations from CinC and completed courses at DSSC, Wellington, and the College of Defence Management.
  • Commander Purnendu Tiwari (Retd)
    • Commander Tiwari, a Navy navigation specialist, commanded INS Magar and served on Rajput class destroyers. Post-retirement, he trained Singapore naval personnel and received the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman award in 2019.
  • Captain BK Verma (Retd)
    • Captain Verma, a navigation specialist, had served aboard a Godavari class ship and excelled in the Staff College course. Both he and his wife had military backgrounds.
  • Commander Amit Nagpal (Retd)
    • Commander Nagpal, a former naval officer, specialised in communications in the Navy.
  • Commander SK Gupta (Retd) 
    • The former naval officer specialised in Gunnery
  • Ragesh (Sailor)
    • The only noncommissioned officer among the group who served as a sailor in the Navy

 

Timeline of the Espionage case 

August 2022

Eight former members of the Indian Navy were taken into custody by Qatari authorities and accused of espionage.

September 2022

One month after they were taken into custody and placed in solitary confinement, the jailed Indian officers' first bail hearing was conducted. The request was denied.

March 2023

The first trial started.

June 2023

A second trial was carried out.

October 1, 2023

The Indian ambassador to Qatar met with the eight prisoners.

October 26, 2023

A Qatari court sentenced everyone to death.

What impact might this verdict have on Qatar's relations with India?

  • Historical India-Qatar Relations
    • India and Qatar have historically maintained friendly relations.
    • India's Prime Minister visited Qatar for the first time in 2008, signifying the growth of the relationship.
    • Bilateral trade between the two countries is valued at US$15 billion, with a significant portion attributed to liquefied natural gas (LNG) and LPG exports.
    • Defence cooperation is a key element of the partnership, with regular visits from Indian naval and Coast Guard ships.
  • Importance of Indian Migrants
    • Over seven lakh (700,000) Indians reside in Qatar, contributing significantly to the relationship.
    • Qatar is the largest supplier of LNG to India, accounting for over 48% of India's global LNG imports.
    • India also imports other essential commodities from Qatar.
  • Repercussions of the Verdict
    • The verdict could have serious repercussions on the generally stable relationship between India and Qatar.
    • The relationship's stability is emphasised, highlighting the potential impact of the verdict on economic and diplomatic ties between the two nations.

What are the challenges for India?

 India is facing challenges in its efforts to commute the death sentences of eight former Indian Navy officers in Qatar. The case is sensitive due to speculation about charges related to espionage, which puts India at a disadvantage and hampers support from other countries.

  • Challenges in the Legal Process
      • The lack of transparency in the charges and investigation may pose challenges for the Navy veterans seeking appeals in Qatar's higher judiciary.
  • Espionage Allegations
      • Initial reports in August 2022 suggested that the officers were detained on suspicion of spying for Israel, as confirmed by an unidentified source to the Financial Times.
      •  However, in November, unidentified Indian officials rejected these espionage speculations.
  • Confidential Proceedings
      • The Indian Ministry of External Affairs described the proceedings as "confidential" and expressed the need to await the details of the judgement.
  • Seriousness of Charges
      • Experts highlight the seriousness of the charges, which could make it difficult to secure relief through legal means.
  • Limited Options for India
    • India is expected to request evidence against the Navy officers, but it's unlikely that Qatar will provide it, citing national security concerns.
    • The allegations are related to espionage, and the verdict has already been delivered, leaving India with limited legal options.

Actions that can be taken by India for this situation

  • Limited Legal Appeal
      • The opacity around the charges and the investigation is a stumbling block for potential appeals in Qatar's higher judiciary.
      • The seriousness of the charges makes obtaining relief through legal means difficult.
      • India will likely request evidence against the Navy officers, but Qatar may not provide it, citing national security concerns.
  • Prisoner Transfer Agreement
      • An existing agreement between India and Qatar allows for the transfer of convicted prisoners to India to serve their sentences where their families can visit.
  • Diplomatic Efforts
      • Diplomacy is another option for India, as a legal appeal might face challenges.
      • India has strong trade relations with Qatar, and the two countries have a security pact.
      • Diplomacy at the government level and negotiations with Qatar are crucial for commuting the death sentences.
      • A prisoner exchange deal, signed in 2015, could be operationalized if the death penalties are commuted to life imprisonment.
  • International Support
      • India's room to manoeuvre is limited due to Qatar's strained relationship with some major West Asian powers.
      • The United States could potentially assist India in negotiations, but its involvement may be reluctant if espionage charges are true.
      • The case is seen as an India Qatar issue, and countries may be cautious about interfering.
  • Geopolitical Factors
      • Geopolitical factors related to the war in Gaza and India's stance on the issue could impact how Qatar proceeds in this case.
      • A solution is likely to be achieved eventually, but the timing is uncertain.
  • Leveraging Bilateral Relations
    • India's best bet is to leverage its warm bilateral relations with Qatar, which have not been as strained as relations with Canada.
    • Doha has granted Delhi consular access to the veterans on two occasions.
    • To convince Qatar to treat the veterans less harshly, India may need to make concessions and provide assurances.

Way Forward

  • India should continue diplomatic negotiations with Qatar to commute the death sentences of eight Navy veterans to life imprisonment. This could involve high-level talks and stressing the importance of the bilateral relationship between the two countries. India could seek international mediation to encourage Qatar to reconsider the verdict. 
  • The convicted veterans could be transferred to Indian prisons under the existing Prisoner Transfer Agreement. India could leverage its strong economic and trade relations with Qatar to emphasise the partnership's significance. 
  • A public awareness campaign, pressure from the Indian Diaspora, legal and transparency measures, continued consular access, strengthening long-term bilateral relations, and adopting a patient and strategic approach are some potential actions to address the situation.

India-Qatar Relations

India and Qatar maintain strong bilateral relations, underpinned by their historically close ties and substantive engagement across various sectors. 

  • Political Relations
    • High-level visits have been a prominent feature of their relations. Notable visits include the Amir of Qatar's visit to India in 2015, while the Prime Minister of India visited Qatar in 2016. These visits aim to enhance the partnership in areas such as energy, infrastructure, and culture.
    • Agreements and MOUs signed during these visits cover diverse fields, including energy, technology, health, education, and information sharing between news agencies.
    • Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Amir of Qatar have maintained a consistent dialogue, discussing bilateral relations and recent developments. They agreed to jointly celebrate 50 years of India-Qatar diplomatic relations.
  • Defence Cooperation
    • Defence collaboration forms a substantial part of their bilateral ties. India provides training opportunities and participates in events like the Doha International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference.
    • The Defence Cooperation Agreement, initially signed in 2008 and extended in 2018, guides their defence relationship.
  • Economic & Investment Relations
    • Bilateral trade between India and Qatar was $18.77 billion in 2022-23. Qatar is a major supplier of LNG to India.
    • Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) has made significant investments in India, such as acquiring stakes in Indian companies and participating in the country's economic growth.
  • Cultural Ties
    • Cultural exchanges are actively promoted, with 2019 celebrated as the India-Qatar Year of Culture, featuring various cultural events and engagements.
    • Qatar has embraced practices like yoga and Ayurveda, with the International Day of Yoga celebrated each year.
  • Indian Community
    • Qatar hosts a substantial Indian expatriate community, comprising professionals from various sectors. Their contributions have played a vital role in Qatar's development.
    • The Indian Embassy and community organisations, including the Indian Cultural Centre and Indian Business and Professionals Council, engage with and support the Indian community in Qatar.

In conclusion, India and Qatar maintain a multifaceted and growing partnership across political, economic, cultural, and people-to-people dimensions, contributing to the strength of their bilateral relations.

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