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‘We don’t know what the charges were…’: Ex-Navy officer released from Qatar jail recounts ordeal

'It is purely because, first of all, of Prime Minister Modi's personal intervention. Had it not been for that, it could have taken more time for us to come out,' he said.
Last Updated 22 February 2024, 21:14 IST

Commander Sanjeev Gupta (retd), one of the eight ex-Navy officers released from prison in Qatar, where they had been held, presumably on charges of espionage, since August 2022, tells independent journalist Nirupama Subramanian that he still does not know why he was arrested in the first place. But he is certain that whatever the issue was, it had nothing to do with anything he had done.

When did you first hear that you were going to be released? 

We had no advance information. At 9 am (on February 11), two guards came and they just said, pack your items. That's it. So we packed. That was the time we thought, “okay, maybe something good is going to happen”. But nobody told us. Then we were brought out of that facility, and we saw the (Indian) ambassador and others (from the embassy), and we came to know. 

Is there a legal word for your release – Pardon? Acquittal?  

There's no legal word. Just like we went into that room (the detention facility), we exited the same way. Whatever word you want to give (it), you can give it.

What do you think happened? 

It is purely because, first of all, of Prime Minister Modi's personal intervention. Had it not been for that, it could have taken more time for us to come out. Secondly, the MEA and the External Affairs Minister -- they took very proactive actions, they really did good diplomacy. From whatever we know, had MEA not continued the conversation with Qatari authorities, probably it (our case) would have died its own natural death. They kept the Qatari authorities continuously engaged and, as they were saying, they have used various channels.

What other channels? 

Probably alternate diplomatic channels, I am not aware of that. And last but not the least, and as far as I'm concerned the most important, Ambassador Vipul (India's envoy to Qatar). He has really gone out of his way to put us at ease, put our families at ease. He used to meet various authorities and every time, during consular access, he used to say, “Just have faith in God, be positive, things are working out, it will work out…”

Do you know what the charges against you were?

We don't. Even we are not aware because whatever was happening in in the court cases, it was all in Arabic… 

Nobody told you the charges? Not even your lawyer? 

No, absolutely not. 

When you were taken into custody, you must have been interrogated. Were you not able to get an idea of what they were trying to put on you from that? 

You know, during the interrogation what happens is, they ask (you) everything under the sun. So, there's no point guessing. They were asking about everything, from my birth to residential place to friends and family...At least, I couldn't make out. I have a fair idea what could have triggered this but it won't be appropriate for me to talk about it, because bygones are bygones. Because we still have good relations with Qatar, Prime Minister has just visited there, he has thanked the Emir. I mean, it could have been somebody's prank, or it could be taken as somebody's prank and we can forget about it, that's how I am seeing it. All those theories of espionage, Israel, submarine, these are all assumptions. 

On the day you were arrested, what were your first thoughts? Did you have an inkling of the arrest?

Absolutely none. It was exactly like somebody comes into this Zoom call all of a sudden and takes you away. What inkling can you have? This is exactly what happened. I was watching Netflix, and guys came and took me away. That's it. They searched my house. Just two months earlier, my wife and daughter had come to India, so I was alone. 

Dahra (Global Technologies and Consultancy Services) was an Omani company. When you joined them, did you know enough about it? 

I had left the Navy some years earlier, and I had already worked in three companies in India…Yes, absolutely. I had a complete idea and, in fact, the company was brought up to the stature that it enjoyed by all of us. I joined it in 2018. There were mainly Indians, but it also had Filipinos, Russians, Ukrainians. 

At any point, did you think that through your work you were improving India-Qatar ties, or was that incidental to the work in what was a private company? 

Yes, it was incidental. We were a private company engaged in a contract to teach officers of Qatar Navy. We are retired personnel. We were teaching them the basics, because their Navy is at a nascent stage. We had simulators with which we used to teach them. That is why the (Indian) ambassadors who visited, and all the authorities who visited, they said it was a very good job by us because we were building up the Qatar Navy. It is just that we were teaching, and because of that, the bilateral ties were building up. That's good, why not. But it was a proper commercial venture. And it was a very good training model. 

You said you want to let bygones be bygones, but you also said you have a fair idea what might have triggered this whole episode. What was it? Competition?

It could have been anything. I mean I can only guess, but it could be competition, it could be government-to-government issues…you can always guess…or it could be a combination of everything. 

Your death sentence must have come as a real shock. 

It was an absolute shock. We came to know through the media only. Through TV channels.

Did you think that it was all over at that stage? 

I had pretty good confidence in this government. I was pretty sure that we were going to come out of this, right, death penalty or no death penalty. We knew that it was not our issue for which we were in that situation…I mean, it was not for any issue to do with Sanjeev Gupta. I was sure from my side.

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(Published 22 February 2024, 21:14 IST)

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