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Eight Indian Navy veterans sentenced to death in Qatar; MEA 'deeply shocked'

New Delhi: A court in Qatar on Thursday sentenced eight former Indian Navy personnel to death, allegedly for spying for Israel.

After the Court of First Instance of Qatar pronounced the verdict, New Delhi stated that it was ‘deeply shocked’ by it. The Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi said that it would continue to extend all consular and legal assistance to the former Indian Navy personnel, now incarcerated in the West Asian country since August 2022.

Though neither Doha nor New Delhi ever officially made public the charges against the eight Indian Navy personnel, sources said that the Government of Qatar accused them of espionage. They had been arrested in Doha in August 2022 for allegedly passing on intelligence to Israel about a project to build a stealth submarine for Qatar.

The former Indian Navy officers, Captain Navtej Singh Gill, Captain Birendra Kumar Verma, Captain Saurabh Vasisht, Commander Amit Nagpal, Commander Purnendu Tiwari, Commander Sugunakar Pakala, Commander Sanjeev Gupta and Sailor Ragesh, were arrested from Doha by the Qatari intelligence service on August 30, 2022.

Commander Purnendu Tiwari was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman by the Government of India in 2019 for helping boost New Delhi’s ties with Doha by playing a key role in training the personnel of the naval force of Qatar.

Tiwari and seven others were all employees of the Al Dahra company, which was offering training and several other services to the security agencies as well as the defence forces of Qatar. The company employed over 70 Indians, mostly former Indian Navy officials. The company suspended its operations in Qatar last May, several months after its officials – eight Indian Navy veterans – were put in the jail.

The Qatar Government never officially made public the charges against the eight, although sources said that Doha had accused the Indian Navy officials of passing on intelligence about a stealth submarine project the government of the West Asian nation had planned to embark upon.

Qatar had in 2020 signed a deal with the Fincantieri SpA, a shipbuilding firm in Italy, for building the submarines. The project, however, did not make much progress.

The Fincantieri SpA also manufactured four corvettes for the Qatari Emiri Navy.

“We are deeply shocked by the verdict of the 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,” Arindam Bagchi, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi stated. “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.”

“Due to the confidential nature of proceedings of this case, it would not be appropriate to make any further comment at this juncture,” he added.

Though it has been a year since the eight Indian Navy officials were arrested for allegedly spying for Tel Aviv, Doha put them on death row amid escalating tension in West Asia over Hamas’s October 7 attacks on Israel and the retaliatory airstrikes by Israel on the Palestinians in Gaza.

India was quick to condemn the terrorist attacks and express solidarity with Israel. With the Hamas-Israel conflict raging on, India stressed strict observance of international humanitarian laws and sent humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The trial for the eight former Indian Navy personnel began in March this year after their bail pleas were rejected repeatedly. The officials of the Embassy of India in Doha were granted consular access to them. The members of the families of some of them had been allowed to meet them. The others were allowed to keep in touch with families over the phone. New Delhi’s envoy to Doha, Vipul, met them on October 1 last.

A source said that Doha claimed to have electronic evidence against the eight Indian Navy personnel, but never shared that with New Delhi.

(Published 26 October 2023, 11:05 IST)

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