India is scrambling to respond to Qatari death sentences handed down to eight of its retired naval personnel, in what legal experts say will be a tough test of New Delhi’s diplomatic prowess.
The eight people were detained in Doha in August 2022, reportedly on suspicion of espionage. Late last week, a Qatari court sentenced them to death, a decision India’s government described as a shock.
The exact grounds on which the men were arrested and the charges on which they were convicted have not been disclosed. Speculation is rife that they are accused of spying for a foreign country. They had been working in a personal capacity for Dahra, an Omani private defense company, to help oversee the introduction of Italian U212 stealth submarines into the Qatari Emiri Naval Force.
Among those facing death are decorated officers, such as Cmdr. Purnendu Tiwari, who in 2019 was awarded the highest honor conferred on overseas Indians by the embassy in Doha, for enhancing the country’s image abroad.
Now the pressure is on India’s diplomats to save the accused. Family members of the former officers have urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene personally, lamenting that the matter was not resolved before it reached this point.
“On several occasions, the foreign ministry assured us that bringing back our loved ones was a priority for them. However, this has not led to any concrete action,” said a relative of detained retired Capt. Navtej Gill, who was awarded the President’s Gold Medal for his service in the armed forces. “We’re waiting for a quick resolution now because their lives are in danger.”
Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on Monday announced that he had met with the families of the men, and that “the Indian government will leave no stone unturned to ensure their release.”
After the ruling was announced, the ministry said it was “deeply shocked by the verdict of death penalty,” and that it was “exploring all legal options.”
The case puts a strain India-Qatar ties that include both significant trade and a large number of Indian workers in the Middle Eastern state — 700,000, former Ambassador to Qatar Deepa Gopalan recently told Indian news outlet The Hindu.
There are high political stakes for Modi as well, with India heading for an election next year. And the verdict comes amid an already challenging period for Indian diplomacy, just after a spat erupted with Canada in September over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s revelation of “credible allegations” that Indian agents were behind the killing of a Sikh separatist in British Columbia. New Delhi called the charge “absurd.”
On Qatar, the key question is what, exactly, the Indian government can do now.
Gopalan stressed that the case needs to be taken “up at the highest level to ensure [the] lives [of the accused] are saved.”
Legal experts say the lack of transparency around the charges against the navy veterans will complicate the effort. “Also, the speculation that the men were held on charges of espionage further makes the case a highly sensitive one that will make a quick resolution very difficult,” said Indian High Court advocate Prakriti Chadha.
Some draw parallels with the case of Kulbhushan Jadhav, another retired Indian naval officer who has been held by Pakistan since March 2016. Islamabad says Jadhav was spying in Balochistan province for India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing. He was sentenced to death by a Pakistan military court in 2017, a ruling challenged by the Indian government at the International Court of Justice.
The matter is still pending with the ICJ. In 2019, the court rejected India’s appeal for Jadhav’s immediate release but ordered Islamabad to suspend the execution.
But while Pakistan and India are nuclear-armed rivals, India and Qatar have cordial relations, which one foreign ministry official suggested lends some hope. “Despite the complexities involved in this [Qatar] case, we’re confident of tackling the issue successfully via diplomacy,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Foreign policy experts emphasize that government-to-government talks are the best way forward. Observer Research Foundation fellow Kabir Taneja, who specializes in West Asia, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that India should “operationalize the prisoner exchange deal that it had signed with Qatar in 2015.” Under the agreement, in theory, Qatari citizens convicted in India could be sent back to their country in exchange for the release of the Indian navy personnel.
Others suggest India should try to leverage its robust trade relations with Qatar to bring the men home. Annual trade between the two countries is valued at around $15 billion. New Delhi is also among the top three sources of Qatar’s imports.
Thousands of Indian companies do business in Qatar, while the emirate’s $450 billion sovereign wealth fund has substantial investments in India and is reportedly planning more. Apart from the hundreds of thousands of Indians working in Qatar, New Delhi also helps train the Qatari Navy under a security pact signed in 2008.
Yet, negotiations could be contentious due to tensions in the region over the Israel-Hamas war.
Qatar is a strong supporter of Palestinian rights and is known to host a Hamas political office, while key leaders of the group reportedly spend time there. The Washington Post and Reuters reported that Qatar is “open” to reconsidering that presence, according to an unnamed U.S. official, in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that left more than 1,400 Israelis dead.
But many in the Arab world are furious over Israel’s retaliatory strikes on Gaza that have killed over 8,500 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
India has a long history of advocating for Palestinian rights and criticizing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. After Oct. 7, however, Modi was quick to condemn Hamas and express solidarity with Israel, and India uncharacteristically abstained from voting on a recent United Nations resolution demanding a cease-fire. Qatar voted in favor.
“In a highly charged geopolitical atmosphere, India’s options are already limited, as countries won’t be forthcoming in supporting New Delhi for such a highly politicized case,” a former Indian ambassador to Pakistan told Nikkei Asia.
Back home, Modi’s opponents have been unforgiving on the Qatar case, slamming the government for not negotiating the officers’ release earlier.
“It is mystifying why did things come to this unfortunate pass? What was the [foreign ministry] doing since August 2022?” opposition Congress party spokesperson Manish Tewari wrote on X. “Would anyone be made accountable for taking their eye off the proverbial ball?”
Source : Nikkei Asia