Seven out of eight Indian ex-navy men landed in India on Monday, three months after they were handed a death sentence by the Qatari government. The lone navy veteran Commander Purnendu Tiwari, who received the harshest punishment of a 25-year life term, was also released a few hours after the rest of the personnel and remains in Doha, according to reports. He is expected to return to India soon.
The country is celebrating the return of the navy veterans, who went from being handed a death sentence in October to having their charges dismissed in February. The navy veterans said their release was made possible because of PM Narendra Modi's "personal intervention".
Their release comes just a day before Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to visit the UAE to inaugurate the nation's first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi. Modi will then also travel to Doha on February 14.
The ex-servicemen, employed by Doha-based Al Dahra Global were arrested in August 2022 on charges that were not made public by authorities, and later sentenced to death penalty in October 2023. On appealing, the death sentence was commuted and they were handed jail terms of varying lengths.
Following appeals made to the Qatar court, the eight accused have been released, in what is being hailed a major diplomatic win for India.
India and Qatar’s diplomatic ties have strengthened in the past few years and trade has been the central tenet of their relationship. India imports 40 per cent of its liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, accounting for nearly half of the global imports, according to official data.
Only last week, India signed its biggest ever USD 78 billion deal to extend LNG imports from Qatar by another 20 years.
The countries have also cultivated strong political ties.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Qatar in June 2016, while the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, made a state visit to India a year earlier, laying the groundwork for a robust economic relationship.
PM Modi also met the Amir of Qatar on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2019 where they discussed "bilateral relations and regional and international issues of mutual interest," according to official reports.
On October 29, 2022, the two leaders discussed bilateral relations over the phone and agreed to jointly celebrate the 50 years of India-Qatar Diplomatic relations. It was earlier in October that the eight ex-navy men were first granted consular access.
And during COP28, PM Modi met with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani on the sidelines, discussing the welfare of the Indian community in Qatar, according to PM Modi.
The death sentence to the eight navy men in question had taken former diplomats and academics by surprise, they said the court order made India-Qatar relations a sensitive issue
"There are over 700,000 Indians in Qatar and we have close economic ties. The Indian government has been following the case closely without doubt, but would need to take it up at the highest level to ensure their lives are saved," Former Indian ambassador to Qatar, Deepa Gopalan, had told The Hindu.
The death sentence in October 2023, came as the hostilities in the Israel-Gaza war started escalating. There were widespread speculations that the Gulf nation's decision to impose the death sentences was intended as leverage to influence India's stance on the conflict.
The release of the eight navy men is being celebrated as a diplomatic win for India. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a statement and appreciated the decision by the Amir of Qatar to enable the release and home-coming of the Indians. "The Government of India welcomes the release of eight Indian nationals working for the Dahra Global company who were detained in Qatar," the MEA said.
"Seven out of the eight of them have returned to India. We appreciate the decision by the Amir of the State of Qatar to enable the release and home-coming of these nationals," it said in a brief statement.
Who are the eight Navy veterans and why were they being prosecuted?
Captains Navtej Gill and Saurabh Vasisht, Commanders Purnendu Tiwari, Amit Nagpal, SK Gupta, BK Verma and Sugunakar Pakala, and sailor Ragesh – were detained in August 2022 on undeclared charges. According to reports, they were allegedly accused of espionage by the Qatari authorities.
The former navy men were employed by Al Dahra Global Technologies, a private outfit involved in developing military facilities in Qatar. Their role was providing training and consultancy services to Qatar’s navy forces and advising the Qatari regime on the submarine acquisition, according to Deccan Herald.
The Navy veterans were first allowed consular access in October 2022, following which they filed multiple bail pleas all of which were rejected. The trial began in March 2023, and on October 26, 2023 they were awarded the death penalty.
Death sentence handed
Following the court ruling where the navy personnel was handed a death sentence, Indian government swiftly responded saying they were "deeply shocked" and would take up the verdict with Qatari authorities.
“We are deeply shocked by the verdict of 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,” the Ministry of External Affairs had said in a statement.
"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.”
Death sentence commuted
On November 23, a Qatari court accepted an appeal filed by the Indian government in relation to the death sentence and agreed to commute their sentences.
They were, however, given prison terms of varying lengths, from three years to 25 years. The navy veterans were told they had 60 days to appeal the prison terms before the Court of Cassation, the highest court in Qatar.
The MEA spokesperson Ravinder Jaiswal, in January, said the ministry had a copy of the court orders, which were confidential in nature and the legal team was working on their next course of action.
“The legal team has got 60 days to file an appeal in the Court of Cassation, which is the highest court in Qatar. Our legal team is working on this issue, to decide the next course of action, and we are in touch with the families and the legal team,” he had said.