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Qatar: 8 Former Indian Navy Officers Handed Death Penalty; MEA to Explore 'All Legal Options'

"We are deeply shocked by the verdict of death penalty and are awaiting the detailed judgement," the Indian foreign ministry said.

New Delhi: The eight former Indian Navy officers who have been detained in Qatar for over a year were handed the death penalty on Thursday, October 26, with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) stating that it was “deeply shocked”.

The men were working for a private firm, Dahra Global Technologies and Consultancy Services, which provided training and related services to Qatar’s armed forces. They were detained without charges in August 2022, with media reports suggesting that they had been charged with espionage. Their bail pleas were rejected multiple times.

The verdict was passed on Thursday by the Court of First Instance of Qatar.

The eight men are Captain Navtej Singh Gill, Captain Birendra Kumar Verma, Captain Saurabh Vasisht, Commodore Amit Nagpal, Commodore Purnendu Tiwari, Commodore Sugunakar Pakala, Commodore Sanjeev Gupta and Sailor Ragesh.

“We are deeply shocked by the verdict of death penalty and are awaiting the detailed judgement. We are in touch with the family members and the legal team, and we are exploring all legal options. We attach high importance to this case, and have been following it closely. We will continue to extend all consular and legal assistance. We will also take up the verdict with Qatari authorities,” the statement by the MEA read.

The ministry said that due to the confidential nature of the proceedings, “it would not be appropriate to make any further comment at this juncture”.

Sources pointed out that the last line in the statement was highly unusual, but was reflective of the general line of the government that it requires sensitive handling.

The opposition Congress party’s chief spokesperson, Jairam Ramesh, said that it learnt with the “greatest anguish” about the death sentence imparted to the eight former defence officers.

“The Indian National Congress has noted with the greatest anguish, distress and shock the most disturbing developments in Qatar regarding 8 former officers of the Indian Navy. It hopes and expects that the Govt of India will use its diplomatic and political leverage with the Qatar government to the maximum to ensure that the officers have full recourse to appeals and also do the utmost to get them released at the earliest,” he tweeted.

Information about the case against the eight men has been limited since its inception.

The opaque nature of the trial in Qatar is evident in the fact that none of the major media outlets within the Gulf kingdom reported the death sentence, even several hours after the Indian government’s announcement.

It came to light that these eight individuals were apprehended in August 2022, following the vocal concerns raised by their family members. They endured several months of solitary confinement before the commencement of their trial.

One of the detained persons, Purnendu Tiwari, was given the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman award by President Ramnath Kovind. The award, as tweeted by the Indian embassy in Doha, was “in recognition of his contribution towards capacity building for the Qatar Navy”. It also said that it was the first time that this award for Indian diaspora was given to a former armed force personnel.

Tiwari had been the managing director at Dahra Global Technologies and Consulting Services, a defence consultancy firm, whose Omani CEO was also detained, but later released.

All eight Indian men were reportedly contracted to provide training to the Qatar navy.

According to media reports, the former naval officers are accused of espionage on behalf of Israel related to Qatar’s submarine programme. Qatar had reportedly claimed to have electronic evidence pertaining to the allegations.

External affairs minister S. Jaishankar had first spoken about the case when he was asked about it in Rajya Sabha last year.

Stating that it was a “very sensitive matter,” Jaishankar had said that their interests were “foremost in our mind”.

“Our Ambassadors, senior officials, have been in continuous touch with the Qatari government on this. Our effort is obviously to ensure that they are not treated unfairly and that the sooner we can bring them back home. So, I assure you that they are very, very strong in our priorities in respect of Qatar, and it is something that we will be pursuing,” he had replied on December 7, 2022.

The first hearing of the trial at the Court of First instance took place on March 29 this year.

A week later, the opposition Congress party’s chief spokesperson had raised questions about New Delhi having “invested greatly” in improving relations with Qatar, but was unable to get relief for the detained Indian nationals.

Training guns on Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his close proximity to a prominent Indian tycoon, Ramesh asked, “Is the Prime Minister reluctant to put pressure on Qatar because its sovereign wealth fund is a major investor in Adani Electricity Mumbai.”

There was no reply from the ruling party, but at the next MEA briefing, the spokesperson noted that the legal process had to be played out.

“If I were to extrapolate that, it would be as if a country has good relations with India, their nationals would not be subject to our laws. I don’t think that’s the line that we want to take. I think Indian laws are applicable to nationals of countries with whom we have good relations also. So, I don’t think good relations should come in the way of a legal process in that,” he said on April 7.

Two months later, Jaishankar gave a general press conference to mark nine years of the NDA government.

At the packed auditorium on June 8, the minister noted that the “full nature of the charges are not entirely clear to us.”

He also said that India was giving the “strongest possible support to the concerned people, including the legal representation, because we believe that their rights should be fully protected”.

Jaishankar also said that he did not rule out diplomacy, but did not give any details.

This story was first published on October 26 at 5:24 pm. It has been republished with more details on the same date at 10:38 pm.