Eight Indian nationals have been imprisoned in Qatar for months for spying on a submarine programme on behalf of Israel and could potentially face the death penalty, according to media reports.
The eight individuals are former officers in the Indian Navy and were arrested in late August, according to reports by Indian, Pakistani, Israeli and Arab media outlets.
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New Delhi has had consular access to the eight prisoners and has tried to secure their release, but has been told by Doha that evidence suggests the former officers passed on intelligence to Israel, Indian news outlet ThePrint reported.
The Indian nationals had their first trial in late March, and another session is reportedly expected to be held this month.
Indian media reported that they were senior employees of Dahra Global Technologies and Consulting Services, a company advising on a Qatari programme aimed at obtaining high-tech Italian-made submarines that could evade radar detection.
Pakistani newspaper The News International reported last week that the company is now being shut down by Qatar, with as many as 75 Indian nationals, the majority of whom are former navy personnel, being told they were being let go by the end of May.
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. The MoU has reportedly not been implemented.
A Fincantieri representative told Al Jazeera that the company currently has no existing contracts for submarines with Qatar, but continues work on finishing seven surface vessels – including four corvettes, one amphibious vessel and two patrol vessels – based on a 2016 agreement with the Qatari Ministry of Defence.
U212 Near Future Submarine
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.
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.
Last year, when no details about the reason for the arrest of the eight Indian nationals had been publicised, Indian media had accused Pakistan of trying to “muddy the waters” with misleading reports.
Some Indian media outlets had even hinted at a Pakistani role in the arrests, citing social media posts online that speculated about the case.