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The Indian sailor saga: Why Qatar did what it did

A deep dive into the rationale behind Doha’s handling of the case involving Indian Navy veterans

The Indian sailor saga: Why Qatar did what it did
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

The eight Indian Navy veterans—seven officers and a sailor—who were under detention in Qatar since August 2022, accused by the prosecution there of spying for a third country, were released this week.

As we rejoice with the families of the veterans and recognize the remarkable achievement of India’s diplomacy working hard behind the scenes, here is a look at what might have happened:

Who in Qatar decided to release the Indian citizens?

Following the release of the Indian Navy personnel, India’s ministry of external affairs (MEA) said in a statement: “We express gratitude for their safe return and extend heartfelt appreciation to the Qatar government and the Amir for their decision to release them. We are pleased to welcome back seven of the Indian nationals, with efforts ongoing to facilitate the return of the eighth individual as swiftly as possible through collaboration with Qatar authorities. The Prime Minister has been personally overseeing all aspects of this case, demonstrating unwavering commitment to facilitating the repatriation of Indian nationals.”

The BBC’s news report on the release of the sailors said that “a Qatari court” had “released eight former Indian naval officers previously on death row for unspecified charges.”

While the BBC did not specify the charges, the Financial Times and Reuters had earlier reported that the men were charged with spying for Israel.

Neither Reuters nor Qatar’s Al Jazeera reported on the sailors’ release from capital Doha. Instead, they quoted the Indian MEA’s press release, and neither of them mentioned any court verdict.

Qatar’s First Instance Court had given the death sentences on 26 October last year.

Two months later, on 28 December, the Court of Appeal commuted the capital punishment and sentenced the former Navy men to jail terms of varying durations ranging from 3 to 25 years.

Qatar’s Court of Appeal had also permitted a further appeal to the Court of Cassation (CoC) within 60 days. This means that the last date for the appeal to be made to the CoC would have been 26 February.

India’s external affairs ministry, which had rendered legal assistance in full measure, would have ensured that the appeal to the CoC was made in good time.

Thus, the “Qatari court” that the BBC did not identify in its report is the CoC. Also, those in the know in both the capitals did not disclose that an appeal had gone to the CoC.

What is the court of cassation?

Since there is no court of cassation in India, we need to dig up what history tells us about it.

The noun “cassation” comes from the French verb “casser”, meaning to break, or to revoke.

The first CoC was established in Paris in 1790 during the French Revolution, which began in 1789.

That court was another avatar of the Parliament of Paris under the Bourbons, a royal family that had ruled France and other European countries at various times from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

It was not a Parliament in the conventional sense, but a forum of jurists consulted by the king that gave the opinion that the latter wanted.

Further, a CoC is different from courts like India’s Supreme Court, which can go into the facts of a case and the legal aspects thereof.

The CoC does not go into the facts of a case. It only examines whether the law has been “correctly” applied.

As Qatar is not a conventional democracy, the concept of a clear separation of powers among the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary, as propounded by 18th-century philosopher Montesquieu, does not apply there.

In a case that involves foreign relations, it follows that the government might give the appropriate signals. This applies even to countries where there is separation of powers.

What was Qatari Amir Sheikh Tamim’s role?

So, what role did Qatar Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani play in getting the former Indian Navy men released?

Sheikh Tamim, 43, is keeping himself busy with conflict resolution, especially in Israel’s war on Gaza.

The Amir would have found himself in a catch-22 situation if the highest court had found the Indians guilty of spying for a third country, thereby endangering Qatar’s national security.

There would have been either of these outcomes: the court of cassation upholding the death sentence, or the court upholding the long prison sentences.

In either case, New Delhi would have formally approached Sheikh Tamim for the release of the sailors.

The Amir would have found it difficult to pardon those who plotted against Qatar’s national security. Equally, or even more so, he would not want to damage ties with India for so many obvious reasons.

The final outcome indicates that Qatar showed maturity of judgment and preserved good bilateral relations with India by adroit navigation in troubled diplomatic waters.

What about Prime Minister Modi’s role?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with the Amir at the COP28 summit in Dubai on 1 December last year had the intended impact.

New Delhi played its cards skilfully. It did not seek a meeting. It was a ‘corridor conversation’, contrary to some reports which claimed that it was a proper sit-down meeting.

A formal meeting between Sheikh Tamim and Modi could have taken place earlier, possibly during the G20 summit in New Delhi in September, if the Amir had come.

As the host, India could have extended invitations to the entire Gulf Cooperation Council, excluding Saudi Arabia that is already a G20 member. The UAE, being specially invited, was in attendance.

Was Pakistan involved?

Some Indian commentators have speculated, or even asserted, that Pakistan’s spy agency—ISI—had viciously engineered all this. This cannot be ruled out, but there is no evidence.

How about Israel?

The answer is neither yes nor no, but perhaps: why?

The Financial Times reported on the day Qatar detained the eight men in August 2022 that a “source” disclosed the charge or suspicion that they had spied on behalf of Israel.

It is credible that Qatar, if it wanted to, would have got the Financial Times to issue a correction.

Ergo, this possibility needs further investigation.

Why would Israel resort to spying?

Since there is no hostility between Qatar and Israel, and considering that Tel Aviv would already have access to information regarding Qatar’s induction of a stealth submarine of Italian vintage through the US, this is a pertinent question to ask.

Notably, the information that Italy was building stealth submarines for Qatar came out as part of a presentation made to the Italian Parliament, as Naval News reported on 21 May 2021.

Perhaps, Israel may be behind it for another reason, such as to earn brownie points with the UAE. However, this does not mean that the eight men were spying.

It is possible to hack into anyone’s account and generate emails without the account holder’s permission or knowledge.

So, there is a probability that Israel may have acted on its own.

If so, why did Qatar’s prosecution persist with its original plea in the first two courts?

There is a plausible explanation.

In the days leading up to Saudi Arabia and the UAE announcing a blockade of Qatar in June 2017 after accusing it of funding terrorism and much else, Qatar News Agency was hacked.

Briefly, a video was circulated on social media where the Amir appeared to be praising Iran and criticizing America while speaking at a military academy. Subsequently, a US agency had identified the UAE as being behind the hacking at Qatar News Agency.

This backdrop might explain why Qatari authorities believed, for a while, that they had substantial evidence against the detained Indian veterans, suggesting a robust legal stance against perceived threats to national security. Even then, it is rather intriguing why all the eight were charged.

However, recognizing the broader implications of the case, Qatar likely sought to assert its resilience against cyber espionage, signaling its ability to withstand such threats. It is, therefore, plausible that the prosecution initially believed that it had good evidence against the veterans.

It is highly likely that Qatar and India had resolved this matter before finalizing the $78 billion deal for expanding LNG imports for another 20 years, starting from 2028. This deal was signed on Tuesday, 6 February.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Doha seems to have restored bilateral relations. However, the host of issues discussed, as given out by Indian foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra, did not include defense cooperation. Notably, the Indian naval attache in Doha departed on the same day the eight men were detained, and as of now, no replacement has been appointed.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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