India’s options are limited in its bid to commute the death sentence of eight former Indian Navy officers convicted in Qatar, even if the crime with which they are charged is still not clear, experts say. After the verdict came on Thursday, New Delhi expressed shock and said that all legal options will be explored to provide relief to the officers who were working for a company that is reported to have provided training services to the Qatari Navy.

The speculation that the Indian men were held on charges of espionage makes the case sensitive, putting puts India at a disadvantage and diminishing its prospects of getting support from other countries, according to the experts.

They said that India will have to hold talks at the government level and rely on its friendly relations with Qatar to ensure that the death sentences are commuted.

Can there be an appeal against the verdict?

The opacity around the charges and the investigation against the Navy veterans will prove to be a stumbling block if the convicts look to appeal against the sentence in higher judiciary in Qatar. Some news reports have suggested that the officers had been detained in August 2022 on suspicion of spying for Israel. On Thursday, an unidentified person who had been briefed on the case confirmed the allegations to the Financial Times.

However, in November, the Hindustan Times quoted unidentified Indian officials as having rejected the speculation. In its statement on Thursday, India’s Ministry of External Affairs described the proceedings as “confidential” and that it was awaiting the details of the judgement.

Sushant Singh, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, told Scroll that there are three higher courts that the Indian men could approach, after which there is the option of filing a mercy petition with the emir of Qatar.

But the seriousness of the charges could make it difficult to get relief through the legal route, experts said.

“India will ask for evidence against the Navy officers, but in all likelihood, Qatar will not provide them citing national security concerns,” said Vivek Mishra, research fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. “The problem here is that from what we know the allegations are related to espionage and the verdict has already come, so India is in a crunched space.”

What diplomatic options does India have?

Since a legal appeal could hit a roadblock, the other option for India is to employ diplomacy. The Indian government has so far failed to resolve the matter diplomatically even as New Delhi found out about the detention in September 2022. On several occasions since then, the foreign ministry said that bringing back the Navy officers was a priority for the government. However this has not actually led to any action.

Despite the failure of the Indian authorities to make a breakthrough, “government to government understanding” was still the way to go, Observer Research Foundation fellow Kabir Taneja, wrote on X on Thursday. In another tweet on Friday, Taneja, who specialises in West Asia, said that India should operationalise the prisoner exchange deal that it had signed with Qatar in 2015.

At the time, the foreign ministry had said that Indian prisoners convicted in Qatar could be brought back to serve the remaining part of their sentences. Qatari citizens convicted in India could similarly return to their country.

For this to work, the death penalties would first have to be commuted to life imprisonment, Taneja told Scroll.

Rajan Kumar, professor of International Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, also said that diplomacy would have to be deployed at the highest levels. “The prime minister will have to speak with the emir of Qatar,” he said. “India should try to convince Qatar that if they commute the death sentence that would not compromise their national security in any manner.”

Could India shore up international support?

India’s room to manoeuvre is also limited because of Qatar’s strained relationship with some major West Asian powers.

“India cannot possibly get Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates to make an outreach because of the blockade they had put in place for Qatar,” said Mishra. “The other option is Iran which has close ties with Qatar abut is unlikely to get involved.”

Between 2017 and 2021, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt had cut their diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar and imposed a sea, land and air blockade on the country, alleging that it supported terrorism.

Mishra added that India could try to get the United States to make its case since Washington and Doha have been at the negotiating table in the recent past to deal with Palestine militant group Hamas and Afghan insurgent group Taliban.

Taneja concurred that the US help India strike a deal, but he added that Washington would be reluctant to get involved if Indians veterans have actually been charged with espionage.

“After all it is about the sovereignty and judicial system of Qatar,” he said. “It’s an India-Qatar issue. No country would want to get into the matter, especially if the question is about Qatar’s national security.”

Delhi’s best bet

The Indian government could also call in on its warm bilateral relations with Qatar. One of the few blips occurred last year when Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Nupur Sharma made disparaging comments about Prophet Muhammad. Qatar was the first of many West Asian countries to officially demanded an apology for Sharma’s remarks.

However, India and Qatar have strong trade relations, with the annual volume of business valued at around $15 billion. In 2021, India was among Qatar’s top four largest export destinations, It is also among the top three sources of Qatar’s imports. Since 2008, the two countries have a security pact under which India helps train the Qatari Navy.

Experts emphasise that India’s diplomatic relations with Qatar have not been as icy as its ties with Canada. They point out that Doha granted Delhi consular access to the veterans on two occasions.

“It will have to be a complicated and confidential negotiation but Qatar understands negotiation,” Kumar said. “...We have seen that in the case of Hamas and the Taliban. And more importantly, Qatar also wants good relations with India.”

If India is to try to convince Qatar to treat the veterans less harshly, Mishra said, New Delhi will have to make concessions to Doha and give it assurances. “If the espionage charges are true, India will have to assure Qatar that it will not be associated with firms like the one these Navy officials worked for,” he said. “But this will be a long-drawn process.”

Singh said that in most cases such as this one, a solution is eventually worked out. “Qatar is a state, not a militant organisation,” he said. “The last time Qatar hanged someone was in 2020 and before that in 2003... Some form of breakthrough is likely to be achieved. But we can’t say when that would happen.”

He added that geopolitical pulls and pressures related to the war in Gaza could also have an impact on the manner in which Qatar proceeds in this case. “Relations between Qatar and Hamas, Qatar and Israel, [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s initial statement on the war...all things could come into play,” Singh said.

In his first tweet on the war in Gaza, Narenda Modi had said he was shocked at the “terrorist attacks in Israel”. His position had drawn criticism from the Opposition. Since then, New Delhi has reiterated its long-standing position of support for an independent Palestine.