Qatar case: India's five options to save 8 ex-naval men from death sentence

India enjoys fairly warm relations with Qatar

qatar-ap (File) Representational image | AP

Is there hope for the eight ex-naval men sentenced to death in a spying case in Qatar? Legally limited; diplomatically much.

First the facts of the case. The seven ex-Indian Navy officers and an ex-JCO, working for a private firm that was involved as a subcontractor to an Italian firm building submarines for the Qatari Navy, were arrested on August 30 last year. They are 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. 

A few months later, it came out that they had been charged with having passing submarine secrets to a third country. The third country is reported to be Israel.

A trial court, called the court of first instance in Qatar, has now found them guilty and sentenced all of them to death. 

This is the first instance of so many Indians being sentenced to death for spying in a friendly country. There is the Kulbhushan Yadav case, but then that is in Pakistan. Indians have been executed in other countries but over charges of murder, homicide or manslaughter. 

The first option for India is to help the convicts file appeal in a higher court. The accused men have, in their conversations with their families and officials of the Indian mission, as permitted by the Qatari authorities, denied the charge. Since very little is known in India about the details of the trial, and how the evidence holds against the accused, legal pundits in India are still not ready to hazard a guess on how viable the option is. 

Another option is to go to the International Court of Justice, as India did in the case of Kulbhushan Yadav who has been convicted and sentenced to death by a Pakistani military court. This option can be exercised only if there were violations of diplomatic and other norms in the arrest, confinement and trial, as there were in the case of Yadav. 

In this case, the accused were initially kept in solitary confinement, but later moved to shared cells. Their families and officials of the Indian mission in Qatar were allowed to visit them, and so India cannot allege a lack of consular access.

A third option is to seek pardon. However, this is very unlikely to be exercised. For, seeking pardon presupposes admission of guilt. In this case, both the accused and the Indian government are maintaining that they are innocent.

A fourth option is to put international pressure on Qatar through human rights bodies, third country governments, the United Nations and other institutions, and seek a remission of the sentence. However, at this stage, this may not be a wise option, since exercising this would foreclose the fifth option. 

The fifth option – most likely to be exercised – is diplomatic. India enjoys fairly warm relations with Qatar, with Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh (in 2008) and Narendra Modi (2016) having visited the country. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, paid a state visit to India in March 2015. 

There have been a few rufflings in the otherwise smooth relations. Qatar is known to be a bastion of Islamic conservatism in the West Asian region and was the most forceful in its protests over the controversial Nupur Sharma episode. 

All the same, there is still tremendous diplomatic goodwill between both countries. For one, Qatar hosts about eight lakh Indians, many of them involved in major businesses with strong connections in the Qatari government. India has been willing to use the goodwill enjoyed by its nationals in the host countries to get hostages freed, and severe judicial sentences commuted. 

Ties are strong in the military field too. Qatari officers are trained in Indian service academies; India is a regular at the biennial Doha International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference (DIMDEX); there is a defence cooperation agreement between the two countries; and Indian naval and coast guard ships regularly visit Qatar. 

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