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8 former Navy officers imprisoned by Qatar accused of spying on emirate’s super-secret submarine programme

Qatar State Security claims to have intercepted electronic communications, but the purported evidence has not been shared with India, it is learnt.

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New Delhi: Eight former Indian Navy personnel being tried in Qatar have been accused of spying on the oil-rich kingdom’s secretive programme to obtain Italian-made, high-tech submarines coated with metamaterials that make their detection by adversaries difficult, intelligence sources have told ThePrint. 

Legal proceedings against the eight officers were reported to have begun on 29 March, and the next hearing is scheduled for May.

Fincantieri SpA, a Trieste-based shipbuilding firm, had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Qatar for the production of submarines in 2020, as part of a wider project involving the construction of a naval base and maintenance of its military fleet. Qatar had also placed orders for four corvettes and a helicopter carrier, as part of a major naval buildup.

“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,” an intelligence officer told ThePrint on condition of anonymity. “But the Qataris are insisting that intelligence on their submarine programme was passed on to Israel.”

The Qatar State Security, the state intelligence agency, claimed to have intercepted electronic communications establishing that the naval officers were spying on the submarine programme, the officer further said. The purported evidence, he added, has not been shared with India.

Former naval commander Purnendu Tiwari — who was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman in 2019 for his services to India — has been incarcerated since September last year along with fellow officers Navtej Singh Gill, Birendra Kumar Verma, Sugunakar Pakala, Sanjeev Gupta, Amit Nagpal, Saurab Vasisht and Ragesh Gopakumar. The men were contracted to provide training services to the Qatar navy. 

At least one of the former officers had experience of submarine projects, public records show. Sugunakar worked as additional general manager in charge of submarine repairs at Hindustan Shipyard in Visakhapatnam from 2016 to 2018, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Tiwari worked as managing director at defence consultant Dahra Global Technologies & Consulting Services. Former Oman air force officer Khamis al-Ajmi, the chief executive officer of Dahra Global, was briefly detained after the arrests, but was released. The company, sources said, has resumed operations in Doha, and continues to retain some Indian nationals among its staff.

Family members of the arrested naval officers — who have been campaigning for their release — did not respond to ThePrint’s requests for comment. In December last year, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had said that India had secured consular access to the men.

Earlier this month, the MEA said that it “attaches high priority to the matter and remains engaged with the Qatari authorities regarding the case”. 

“Let’s see…now that the legal process is underway, we’ll keep a close watch on that,” MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said, adding that the charges had not been placed in open court so far.

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Submarine deal’s implications for India

Fincantieri told ThePrint the 2020 MOU has not been implemented. There have been reports, though, that new-generation submarines were being built for Qatar by the company M23 S.R.L at a factory in Bergamo in collaboration with submarine maker CABI Cattaneo. Representative computer-generated graphics were released in the course of a presentation made by CABI Cattaneo to the Italian defence ministry in 2021.

According to industry publications, the submarines are smaller variants of the U212 Near Future Submarine, built by Italy in cooperation with German firm Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems. The U212 includes an air independent propulsion system, allowing for extended operations without surfacing. The U212 also has electronic capabilities which allow it to operate as a mothership for autonomous undersea drones.

The acquisition of the submarines by Qatar has implications for both India and Israel. The Pakistan Navy already operates Cosmos-class midget submarines, built by an Italian firm, which can be used for special forces operations against Indian naval facilities. Qatar has close ties with the Pakistan armed forces, and New Delhi fears it could seek to acquire the stealth technologies embedded in the new submarines.

Israel and Qatar also have a closely-guarded military relationship, but Tel Aviv has long tried to block the proliferation of state-of-the-art technologies across the Middle East, fearing they could undercut its military edge.

This is an updated version of the report.

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

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