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8 ex-Indian Navy personnel released, PM Modi skeds a visit to Qatar on Feb 14

NEW DELHI: Qatar has freed eight former Indian Navy personnel who were sentenced to death after being detained in August 2022 on undeclared charges, with New Delhi announcing on Monday that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Doha this week to discuss ways to strengthen bilateral relations.

FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani during the COP28 in UAE on December 1. (PTI File/@narendramodi/X)

In a surprising turn of events, the external affairs ministry announced early on Monday that the eight men had been released on the orders of the emir of Qatar, marking a significant diplomatic breakthrough for New Delhi. All but one of the former naval personnel returned home on Monday, and their release ended widespread speculation about their fate following their detention.

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In December last year, Qatar’s Court of Appeal commuted the death sentences awarded to the men – Captains Navtej Gill and Saurabh Vasisht, Commanders Purnendu Tiwari, Amit Nagpal, SK Gupta, BK Verma and Sugunakar Pakala, and sailor Ragesh – and sentenced them to prison for varying durations ranging from three years to 25 years.

The Court of Appeal also gave the eight men 60 days to appeal against the prison terms, but in a surprise development, the external affairs ministry announced they had been released, and that seven of them had returned home.

“The Government of India welcomes the release of eight Indian nationals working for the Dahra Global company who were detained in Qatar. Seven out of the eight of them have returned to India,” the ministry said in a brief statement.

“We appreciate the decision by the Amir of the State of Qatar to enable the release and home-coming of these nationals,” the statement said without giving details.

Hours after the announcement, foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra told a media briefing that Modi will visit Qatar on February 14 after a trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He also said such trips are finalised months in advance, rejecting suggestions the visit was linked to the case of the eight men.

Modi last visited Qatar in June 2016, and he is set to have bilateral meetings with the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, and other senior dignitaries during the upcoming trip. “The bilateral relationship between India and Qatar, that has been steadily growing, includes a comprehensive span, including political ties, trade and investment linkages, a strong energy partnership, and ties in the field of culture, education and security,” Kwatra said.

During the recent India Energy Week in Goa, QatarEnergy announced it has entered into a 20-year LNG sale and purchase agreement with India’s state-run Petronet LNG Limited for supplying 7.5 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) of LNG to India. The LNG supplies will be delivered to terminals across India by QatarEnergy’s LNG fleet starting in May 2028.

Kwatra also said two-way trade currently stands at $20 billion and Qatar is a significant investor in India. The 840,000 Indians living in Qatar are part of an important connection between the two countries, and Modi’s visit will provide an opportunity for the top leadership of both sides to discuss ways to deepen and strengthen the multi-faceted partnership, he said.

While expressing India’s gratitude for the Qatari leadership’s decision to free the eight men, Kwatra said the prime minister had “personally supervised developments in this case” and pursued all initiatives for their release.

Both countries have still not revealed the charges against the men, or the conditions for their release. It had been widely reported that the men had been charged with espionage.

A team of Indian officials was in Qatar for the past few days for the final discussions regarding the release of the men and to escort them to India, people familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity. It is understood that National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and other security officials played a key role in negotiations for their release. Doval also made several low-key visits to Doha for discussions on the matter.

Modi met Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani on the margins of the COP28 Summit in Dubai in December and discussed the “well-being of the Indian community in Qatar”, according to a post on X by the premier at the time.

The people said Commander Purnendu Tiwari, who has family based in Qatar, had stayed back in Doha and is expected to return to India soon. Tiwari, who received the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman in 2019, was engaged in training Qatari naval personnel during his term with Dahra Global.

The eight men were freed on Sunday and seven of them boarded flights to India soon after. One of the men told the media on his arrival at the airport in Delhi that they were very happy to be back safe and sound. He thanked Modi for his “personal intervention” to make the release of the men possible and the Qatari emir for letting the release happen.

On December 28 last year, Qatar’s Court of Appeal commuted the death sentences awarded in October and sentenced the eight men to prison for varying durations. The Court of Appeal initially delivered an oral order, and later released a copy of the verdict that was classified as a “confidential document”.

Tiwari was given a 25-year prison term while sailor Ragesh was given a three-year sentence. Four of the former naval officers were given 15-year prison terms and two others 10-year prison terms.

The commutation of the death sentences made it possible for India to invoke a 2015 agreement with Qatar on the transfer of sentenced persons. The pact allows citizens of both countries, who have been convicted and sentenced for criminal offences, to serve their prison terms in their home country. The agreement doesn’t apply to persons sentenced to death.

India had earlier expressed “deep shock” at the death sentence given by Qatar’s Court of First Instance and pledged to look at all legal options to help the eight men, including decorated officers who commanded frontline warships in the Indian Navy.

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