A Qatar court has sentenced eight former Indian navy personnel to death on charges of spying for Israel. The verdict appears to have taken the External Affairs Ministry entirely by surprise. Here’s a brief guide to a bizarre case.
Wait, first tell me who these men are…
All eight men are former naval personnel—belonging to various ranks: Captain Navtej Singh Gill, Captain Birendra Kumar Verma, Captain Saurabh Vasisht, Commodore Amit Nagpal, Commodore Purnendu Tiwari, Commodore Sugunakar Pakala, Commodore Sanjeev Gupta and Sailor Ragesh.
The company: They were employed by Dahra Global Technologies—which was a defence contractor employed by the Qatari military. It was advising Qatar on the acquisition of high-tech Italian-made submarines that could evade radar detection:
Qatar had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2020 with Italian-based shipbuilding firm Fincantieri SpA to build submarines as part of a larger project involving the construction of a naval base and maintenance of its military fleet.
According to Economic Times, the company is owned by a Qatari national—who was arrested but later released on bail. Indian Express claims the owner is Khamis al-Ajmi, a retired squadron leader of the Royal Oman Air Force. In any case, all those who have been convicted are Indian.
Point to note: In 2019, the company’s Managing Director—Purnendu Tiwari—was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman—the highest honour conferred on overseas Indians by the Indian government. The Qatari government recommended Tiwari for the award.
Whither Dahra Global? The company shut down in May—10 months after its employees were arrested: “Up to 75 Indian nationals were informed that their last day of employment at Dahra is on May 31 and must leave Qatar as their visas have expired.” But the company has since resurfaced in a new avatar:
The company’s old website, which no longer exists, said it provided training, logistics and maintenance services to the Qatari Emiri Naval Force (QENF). On its new website, the company is called Dahra Global, but there is no mention of the connection to the QENF, nor of the seven former Navy officers who had leadership roles in the company.
About that Navy background: The fact that all the men were once part of the Indian Navy isn’t a coincidence. These kinds of jobs are arranged by the Navy for its veterans—via agreements signed by the government:
In November 2019, then Southern Navy Command chief Rear Admiral R J Nadkarni told a meeting of an ex-sailors’ forum in Kochi that the Navy had taken measures to provide placement opportunities for retired personnel to provide them with a “second innings with friendly nations”. He informed the meeting that an MoU had been signed with the Qatar Navy in this regard. There would be more such agreements with other friendly nations, he said, assuring that the Navy would stand by its motto that it cares for its veterans.
Ok, now tell me about the case
The arrests: The men were first detained without charges in August 2022. The Indian embassy didn’t learn about their arrest until mid-September. It was an entire month before the first consular visit was approved. They were kept in solitary confinement for months—without any clarity about their actual crime. Even the Ministry of External Affairs didn’t share any information about the charges—and seems to have been kept in the dark.
The rumoured charges: There has never been any official confirmation of their crimes—even though the men went on trial in March this year. But multiple media reports claim they were accused of spying on the submarine program on behalf of the Israelis. An Indian intelligence source told The Print:
We’ve tried hard to convince our counterparts in Doha that India and its nationals were not involved in hostile intelligence operations against the emirate. But the Qataris are insisting that intelligence on their submarine programme was passed on to Israel.
As Al Jazeera notes, Tel Aviv would very likely be interested in the Italian subs:
The submarines that Qatar is seeking are reportedly a smaller variety of the U212 Near Future Submarine, an ambitious submarine project in Italy built in cooperation with a German firm. Israel has not officially commented on the issue, but it has stakes in preventing the development of military technologies across the Middle East, as it fears it could undercut its United States-backed military edge.
An intelligence analyst writing in Forbes says the submarines could also change the naval balance in the region:
Currently Iran is the only submarine operator in the Arabian Gulf, also known as the Persian Gulf, save for the occasional U.S. Navy or European submarine. Two of Qatar’s neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both have stated needs to acquire submarines. Qatar has difficult relations with these countries so the submarine acquisition could be seen, at least in part, as a response to these moves.
Point to note: Intelligence sources also say that they have not been shown the evidence—although Doha claims to have intercepted damning electronic communication.
The weird Pakistan angle: Many of the details of this case are shrouded in vague language. Unnamed Indian sources suggested to ANI that the men may have been “framed" by Pakistani intelligence agencies. Also this:
India and Pakistan are also interested in the submarine race as they seek to block each other from getting the upper hand. The Pakistan Navy already operates midget submarines built by Italy and enjoys increasingly close ties with Qatar, while India is concerned about Pakistan potentially looking to acquire stealth technologies embedded in the new submarines.
The bottomline: It isn’t clear if the Indian government can do anything to save the men’s lives—despite promising to explore “all legal options.” Although Doha and New Delhi share a very close relationship, Qatar has not made any concessions so far. And it is unlikely that India will lean too hard on its ally at a time when the Middle East is in uproar—and we are already walking a delicate tightrope in our stance on the war in Gaza. Reminder: Qatar is aligned with Hamas—and has supplied it with military and financial assistance.
Indian Express and The Wire offer the best overviews of the case—and its impact on the India-Qatar relationship. These older reports from Doha News and Al Jazeera have the most on the Pakistan angle. This OSINT analysis in Forbes explains why Qatar’s purchase of these stealth submarines is a big deal in the region.