qatar released 8 navy officers

On the 11th of February this year, Qatar released 8 Navy veterans of India who were arrested and sentenced to death on shady espionage charges in August of 2022. After one and a half years of rigorous legal tussling with the Qatari courts, this development is regarded as a massive feat and considering the stakes of this matter, it is considered a peak diplomatic achievement by Indian authorities.

Release of 8 Naval Veterans : Overview

  • In August of 2022, seven Indian ex-Navy official Captains Navtej Gill and Saurabh Vasisht, Commanders Purnendu Tiwari, Amit Nagpal, SK Gupta, BK Verma, Sugunakar Pakala, and one sailor Rajesh, were arrested by Qatari official in the middle of the night. They were working with a company Doha International, which specializes in training Naval officers for Qatar. The eight men were arrested on the charges of espionage for Israel.
  • After six months and two preliminary hearings, in March of 2023 this case moved into Qatar courts. 
  • On October 26th of 2023 the courts gave death sentences to the eight men
  • After intervention by the Ministry of External Affairs of India and a meeting between Qatari Amir and Indian PM in Dubai, the death sentence was revised to prison terms in December.
  • On February 11th, 2024, the charges were dropped and Qatar released 8 Navy Officers.

However, the case is not that simple when we look deep. There are several roadblocks, shady investigations and malevolent intentions India had to face for the rightful freedom of the eight men.

The subject of the espionage charges is an allegedly near-future Qatari Navy submarine that is being developed by an Italy-based company Fincantieri. However, the company Fincantieri, denied ever working in such projects.

Another red flag was, that the company Doha International shut all of its operations after the arrests of the Indians. But soon after the CEO established another company took over all the assets and contracts and started working on the same projects after retaining almost all the employees of the previous company. The Qatari government’s nonchalant attitude towards a company accused of espionage allegations and continuance of workings regarding national security matters raised doubt towards the credibility of the allegations.

The sentence itself was given based on the confessions of the ex-Navy officials. However, after gaining consular access to the victims, the MEA revealed that the confession itself was extracted under duress and torture. 

The charges against the Indians were the most serious espionage, apparently for Israel-and a few countries would release people convicted of these crimes, especially after the death penalty was imposed. Adding to that The Qatari legal system is opaque than others, making it difficult to obtain accurate details about the charges, evidence, and the procedure ahead.

Qatar Released 8 Navy Veterans : A BIG WIN For Indian Diplomacy

The fact that all 8 were former servicemen- added to the public concerns and pressure in India for their safe return- and criticism of Qatar in India only made the diplomat’s job more difficult. In addition, the fallout of any decline in Qatar ties would have been felt by 800,000 Indians who live and work there. That’s why it was one of the most delicate diplomatic manoeuvres for the MEA.

The MEA has been putting in their efforts since the first day of the arrest of the officers. The arrests came to light after a relative of one officer put out tweets regarding the incident tagging the MEA. After that, the MEA provided legal support during the preliminary hearing to the eight men and started exploring diplomatic ways for their release.

After the case went to court the ministry changed the legal counsel and involved the PM office. NSA head Ajit Doval conducted negotiations during several of his visits to Qatar for this matter. Minister Jaisankar worked on the diplomatic front, along with high-ranking diplomats from the ministry.

After the death verdict, PM Modi met the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Dubai on the sidelines of COP28. And one week after the meeting, on 28th December the death sentence was commuted to prison terms. Indian PM’s personal relation with the Emir played an important role in this ordeal.

However, the trigger for the release of the eight men was the 78B USD Petronet energy deal that India signed with Qatar on 7th February. India’s biggest LNG importer Petronet LNG Limited signed a 20-year deal with Qatar for the import of LNG, at the Indian Energy Week summit held in Goa, in the presence of several key personnel both from the government and private energy sector. This deal initially was perceived as a hand-twisting method by Qatar on India, however, upon further interpretation this was proved otherwise. According to reports the renewal is at a “significantly” lower price than the current deal. At current prices, India will save about USD 0.8 per million British thermal units at the renewed terms. This translates into savings of USD 6 billion over the contract period

Apart from that, India’s balancing act on the Israel-Gaza conflict- New Delhi’s vote at the UN in October that abstained from criticism of Israel, its decision not to ban Hamas, negotiating the IMEC with Saudi Arabia and UAE, the INSTC with Iran, any of its actions could also have been seen to tip the balance against the naval personnel.

On the 11th of February, Qatar released 8 Navy officers. Seven of them returned with Indian consulates and one remained back due to immediate health concerns. “The prime minister thanked the Emir for his support for the welfare of the Indian community and, in this regard, expressed his deep appreciation to the emir for the release of eight Indian nationals of the al-Dahra company. We are extremely gratified to see them back in India,” foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra told a media briefing in Doha, during PM Modi’s visit to Qatar on 14th February.

India’s diplomacy in the Gulf region has been marked by a significant transformation in recent years, moving from transactional to strategic ties. This shift is largely attributed to proactive diplomatic efforts, including frequent high-level visits and personal engagement with the leaders. The focus of cooperation has expanded beyond traditional areas like energy trade to include defense, security, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, joint investment, infrastructure projects, and science and technology. The release of Indian ex-naval personnel held on espionage charges in Qatar is a recent example of the effectiveness of India’s diplomatic engagements. Furthermore, the construction of a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi symbolizes the improvement in religious tolerance in the Gulf. These developments underscore the success of India’s diplomacy in the Gulf, fostering stronger bilateral relations and mutual trust.

By Subhakanta Bhanja

Subhakanta Bhanja is a multi-disciplinary writer with a passion for exploring the intersections of science, technology, and geopolitics. A Utkal University graduate with a background in Science, he brings a unique perspective to the world of writing, combining technical knowledge with an understanding of the political and social implications of new innovations.