The recent court verdict issuing a death sentence to eight former Indian Navy personnel—seven officers and one sailor—employed by a private company in Qatar has sent shockwaves across India and beyond. The distress of the families demands urgent action to bring back the ex-servicemen to India.
During a meeting with the families on 30 October 2023, the external affairs minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar, assured that the government attached the “highest importance” to the matter and would continue to make “all efforts” to secure their release.
I started dealing with Qatar in 1988 as Joint Secretary (Gulf). My next post was as Ambassador in Doha where I served from 1992 to 1997. I have been to Doha several times after retirement and am scheduled to attend the Doha Forum in December 2023. I find it highly improbable that these death sentences will be carried out.
First, let us put together what is available in the public domain. Understandably, the two governments have been rather reluctant to put out information given the sensitivity of a matter involving Qatar’s national security. The ministry of external affairs might have done much more than it has told the public.
Dahra Global Technologies & Consultancy Services (DGTCS), where the eight men worked, is headquartered in Oman, and was started by Squadron Leader (Retd.) Khamis-al-Ajmi, a former Squadron Leader in the Omani Air Force. The branch in Doha has been rendering various services to the Qatari Navy, including the induction of the Italian midget submarine U212.
Qatar’s intelligence agency—State Security Bureau—apprehended the eight Indian individuals and Khamis-al-Ajmi at night on 30 August 2022. Khamis-al-Ajmi was released in November 2022. Neither the Indian Embassy nor the detainees were informed about the reasons for their detention. The detainees were initially kept in solitary confinement and consular access was granted after request from the embassy. Family members were also granted access to the detainees by the Qatari government.
It was only in March 2023 that the trial commenced in the Court of First Instance. The Indian Embassy appointed a legal team and the court gave its verdict on 26 October 2023 after seven sessions. The Indian Ambassador and his deputy last met the eight on 1 October 2023. While one man had his spouse with him in Doha, the spouses of the other seven men reached the Qatari capital within 48 hours of the verdict.
The text of the charges is not public, and Indian Navy chief, Admiral R. Hari Kumar stated on 30 October that he was waiting for the translated transcript of the court proceedings from the ministry of external affairs.
The charge is spying for a third country, although the name of of the country remains undisclosed. However, some media reports have mentioned Israel. Whether that be the case or not, there is no logic in linking the verdict with the ongoing Israel-Palestine war that began only on 7 October 2023.
My assessment that the eight men will not be executed is based on four considerations:
1. Executions rare: Qatar does not regularly execute individuals, unlike some of its neighbors. The last execution was in 2021 when a Nepalese daily wage worker who knifed to death a Qatari national was executed. The previous execution was 20 years before that.
2. Fair legal system: Qatar has a fair legal system that delivers justice. In a case of espionage involving three Philippines, one of them working for Qatar General Petroleum was sentenced to death while two working for the Qatar Air Force were awarded life imprisonment. The Court of Appeals heard their case, and revoked the death penalty and reduced the life sentences.
3. Relations with India: Qatar values its relationship with India. About 800,000 Indians, accounting for 25% of the country’s total population, reside in Qatar. Thousands of Indian professionals—chartered accountants, engineers, managers, and others—contribute significantly to Qatar’s economy. The Indian community is highly regarded by the Qataris.
Bilateral trade amounted to $15.03 billion in 2021-2022, with Qatar’s exports to India at $13.19 billion, and its imports from India at $1.83 billion. Around 15% of Qatar’s global export of LNG comes to India.
The Qatar Investment Agency (QIA), which recently invested $1.1 billion in Reliance Retail Ventures, has plans to open an office in India. Qatar obviously recognizes the importance of India, the 5th largest economy, as a market for investment.
4. Qatari diplomacy: Qatar’s diplomatic prowess, particularly in resolving disputes between nations, gives hope for a resolution. Qatar, under its 43-year-old ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, handled with superb diplomatic skills the blockade imposed on it by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others in 2017, leading to the lifting of the blockade in 2021.
Qatar hosted the talks between the Taliban and the USA, leading to the withdrawal of US military from Afghanistan in 2021. It played a crucial role in a recent deal between Iran and the US for exchange of detainees. As part of that deal, Iran was able to recover $6 billion held up in South Korea because of US sanctions. It is also mediating for the release of over 200 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.
Considering Qatar’s history of peaceful dispute resolutions, the Emir will not do anything to seriously damage relations with a rising India led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
India should now focus on getting the death sentence revoked, for which there are four options:
1. Appeal the death sentence in a higher court.
2. Pursue diplomacy through a special envoy or the external affairs minister.
3. Formally seek pardon from the Emir as early as appropriate and follow it up with a summit meeting between Prime Minister Modi and the Emir, preferably offline rather than online. In Qatar and other Islamic countries, it is customary to grant pardon during the holy month of Ramadan, which falls between 10 March and 9 April in 2024. The argument that India should not seek pardon as it implies confession of guilt does not hold. Innocence or guilt is to be proved in a court of law and not in the exchanges between foreign offices. If the Court of Appeal upholds the charge, the best option is to seek pardon.
4. The fourth option is to seek friendly nations, starting with the US, to intervene to put pressure on Qatar. If that does not work, the last option is to go to the International Court of Justice.
I do not advise exercising the fourth option as it cannot be exercised simultaneously with the other three and the prospects of success are rather doubtful. However, prudence requires studying the pros and cons of that option and working out a plan for eventual action if necessary.
In conclusion, India should work for revocation of the death sentence by March-April 2024, if not earlier. Once the death sentence is revoked, New Delhi can work out a plan to get the eight transferred to India where they can serve the remainder of the sentence under a bilateral agreement that provides for such transfers.
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