Thiruvananthapuram/Ernakulam/Kozhikode: In the early 2000s, Sharmina K.V. and Sunithal Basheer, two Kerala women who were living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), had entirely different lives.
Sharmina was a B. Tech. graduate living with her family, and waiting to start a life with her love, Shihani Meera Sahib Jamal Mohammed, an MBA graduate who lived with his parents and three younger brothers in the Gulf country.
Sunithal was working as a nurse in Abu Dhabi. She was married to Mohammed Ibrahim Puthan Purayil, an employee at a pharmacy. The couple had moved to the UAE after working for some years in Saudi Arabia. They were hoping to build a life in the country, the most favoured foreign destination for Keralites.
However, fate held something strange for the two women.
Sharmina and Sunithal first met in late 2015–outside the Al-Wathba jail in Abu Dhabi, one of the country’s main detention centres.
Sharmina was searching for her husband Shihani, who had been missing since August that year after being picked up by the UAE police from their house. Sunithal was visiting her husband Ibrahim, already lodged in Al-Wathba after being arrested in March 2014.
In the years since that first meeting, the two women have met several times, in UAE and in India, as they wage similar battles, seeking justice for their husbands.
Shihani and Ibrahim were both arrested and convicted on charges of spying for India, and are currently serving a 10-year jail term at Al-Wathba prison.
Their families alleged that the men were innocent, and that Indian intelligence officers associated with the Indian embassy in Abu Dhabi misguided ordinary Indians to procure sensitive information from places such as ports.
According to the families, the men were denied the legal and diplomatic support they deserved from their country.
Lawyers and a former ambassador told Article 14 that any Indian citizen arrested in a foreign country deserved diplomatic support, and the country had a responsibility to intervene in such cases.
Former Ambassador K P Fabian said every Indian citizen imprisoned in a foreign country deserved consular protection by the Indian embassy in that country. Fabian, a diplomat from 1964 to 2000, said any Indian citizen in trouble overseas should be offered consular service, “irrespective of the nature of the problem” he/she may be facing.
Haris Beeran, a Supreme Court lawyer, said that the Indian government was “liable to provide protection to the life and liberty of its citizens” inside and outside the country.
Fabian, who played a crucial role in the evacuation of Indians from Kuwait in 1990, quoted a sentence printed on Indian passports: “These are to request and require, in the name of the president of the republic of India, all those whom it may concern, to allow the bearer ... to afford him or her, every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need.”
Senior lawyer T Asaf Ali said an Indian national facing charges of spying in a foreign country was a “ticklish” subject. Intervention could be simpler in cases involving Indian prisoners in the UAE, with which India has friendly relations, he said. He cited the case of Kulbhushan Jadhav, an Indian national arrested in Pakistan on charges of spying, for whose release India made public efforts.
Families, UAE Court Confirm Role Of Indian Embassy Officials
Shihani Jamal Mohammed was an assistant operations manager at multinational shipping firm Inchcape Shipping Services, where he was employed since 2005. In his latest role, he was assigned to provide services to ships, including navy vessels, that docked at the Zayed Port (Mina Zayed) in Abu Dhabi.
Shihani engaged with foreign navies, including those of the US, UK, France and Egypt as part of his job.
Before his arrest, Shihani’s company also had a contract with the Indian Navy.
While contracted by a foreign navy, Shihani’s company would be in touch with that nation’s embassy in Abu Dhabi when its naval ships docked at the port. According to the family, the company’s managers, including Shihani, communicated with officials authorised by the embassy concerned. It was as part of his job that Shihani was in contact with Indian officials.
Shihani was unaware that these “embassy officials” were intelligence officers, said the family, and communicating with them eventually landed Shihani in prison.
Shihani was giving “state defence secrets” to “Indian intelligence officers”, according to the UAE court’s verdict. “He had to keep communication with some people at the Indian embassy as part of his job,”said Sharmina.
Shihani communicated with these officials using his company’s official email id and a mobile phone provided by the company. According to Sharmina, Shihani was never aware that they were intelligence officers.
Article 14 contacted India’s ministry of external affairs, its minister of state V Muraleedharan, and the Indian embassy in Abu Dhabi for their responses to the families’ allegations. Emails sent to them on 26 August and 1 September remained unanswered.
Shihani was arrested on 25 August 2015 and convicted by the UAE Federal Appeal Court on 27 March 2017. The verdict was upheld by the country’s Supreme Court on 16 April that year.
The Federal Appeal Court in Abu Dhabi ruled that Shihani was guilty of handing over details of military vessels’ docking location and duration to “Indian intelligence officers Anirban Mukherjee, Anub Kumar Srivastava and Arun Jain who are working for the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi”.
A petition filed in July in the Kerala High Court by Shahubanath Beevi, Shihani’s mother, gave further details of the Indian officers named in the UAE court’s verdict. According to her petition, which spelt the name of the officers slightly differently, Anup Kumar Shrivastava, Anrup Mukherjee and Arun Jain were Consular Officer, Military Attache and First Secretary, respectively.
The UAE court verdict, according to Sharmina, said Shihani provided information about a foreign ship on request from Indian intelligence officers. Sharmina said Shihani was only responding to questionnaires sent by Indian embassy officials, as he would do with the embassy of any other country whose navy contracted his company. “He was just doing his job,” she said. “He did nothing more.”
In her petition, Shihani’s mother said her son was subjected to “severe tortures and harassments”. He wasn’t offered any support by either the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi or the Government of India, and was also not provided “proper legal aid to defend his case”, the petition said.
It said Indian intelligence agencies, under cover of the embassy, “entice poor Indians” employed in sensitive UAE government institutions to procure information.
Beevi said when ordinary Indians were caught by local authorities, the officials “escape under the cover of diplomatic immunity” and offer no assistance to those they used to get information.
Shihani was subjected to “third degree tortures”, including being kept in extreme cold temperatures, in bright light for hours, subjected to shocks delivered through stun belts fastened around his waist, the petition said.
Shihani’s mother requested the court, among other things, to direct the Indian government to extend the necessary support to him, “legally, diplomatically and politically”.
Advocate Jose Abraham, Shahubanath Beevi’s counsel, said the high court had sought a response from the union government. He expected the court to consider the matter again soon.
‘My Husband’s Imprisonment Made Me Bolder’
It was four months after his disappearance that Sharmina finally tracked him down in prison.
Before and after tracing him in jail, Sharmina and Shihani’s parents contacted the then Indian Ambassador to the UAE T.P. Seetharam, former external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, former and present ministers of state for external affairs V.K. Singh and V. Muraleedharan, Kerala parliamentarians Shashi Tharoor and Suresh Gopi.
Sharmina and Shihani’s parents travelled to Delhi multiple times trying to seek the government’s intervention. “So far, we have received no support,” said Sharmina. She said she has spent all her savings, and also borrowed from relatives.
Shihani’s health deteriorated in prison, she said, he would need a caretaker once he is released. Because of the nature of the charges against Shihani, she said, he was confined in a cell, “caged”, and not allowed any recreational activity.
Sharmina and Shihani’s two sons, in classes 8 and 5, do not know where their father is. They were only told he is unable to return home due to work. Sharmina said it was a matter of time before the elder boy saw through that lie.
Once dependent on her husband, circumstances forced her to toughen up, she said. “I became bolder,” she said. “I used to cry even for silly things earlier. Now, not many things affect me.”
Sharmina now works as an engineer with a firm in the UAE, sustaining her family in Shihani’s absence.
Theirs was a love marriage, said Sharmina, smiling. They courted for five years before getting married in 2005. Shihani was a soft-spoken man who enjoyed playing volleyball.
Shihani’s father Jamal Mohammed said his son was worried about the economic impact of his incarceration on the family. “Shihani asks about the family’s financial condition, which worsened since his arrest, whenever he calls from jail,” he said.
Sharmina’s jail visits were curtailed by the pandemic, and she last met her husband in January 2020. Shihani is allowed to make a phone call twice a week, for five minutes each. “The authorities monitor our conversation and disconnect the call if we chat about something they don’t like,” she said.
‘Supplied Information In Return For Son’s Passport’
Like Shihani, Ibrahim, a native of Ernakulam, was also convicted by the UAE Supreme Court on charges of being an Indian spy.
Though the two families’ experiences were different, a key common element was the alleged involvement of embassy officials. While Shihani’s verdict named three Indian officers, Ibrahim’s judgment named two other officials’ names. It was not clear if the names in the verdicts were real or aliases.
Like Shihani, Ibrahim also worked at the Zayed Port, a key strategic location in the country’s capital where international ships, including naval vessels, arrive regularly. He was an administrative assistant with Abu Dhabi Ports, the company that manages all ports in the emirate.
Ibrahim’s wife Sunithal said Indian Embassy officials began to target him in 2013.
Sunithal said two Indian embassy officers misguided Ibrahim and told him that he should give them names and other details of certain ships coming to the port, “for the security of both India and UAE”. She said Ibrahim’s contact with these officials ultimately landed him in jail.
According to Ibrahim’s family, Ibrahim communicated sensitive information to Indian officers who demanded it in return for smooth completion of procedures for his son’s passport. The UAE court verdict corroborated this.
Sunithal said Ibrahim was arrested by UAE officials on the same day that he visited an embassy official, in March 2014, to collect his son’s renewed passport. The instruction to Ibrahim to collect the passport in person was “unusual” and “deceptive”, she said, as usually passports are sent by post.
The UAE Supreme Court’s verdict said Ibrahim was “in contact with Indian intelligence officers who were working in the Indian Embassy, Abu Dhabi, as officers”. It said Ibrahim provided information and details of warships docked at the port. Ibrahim had contact with “two intelligence officers in the Indian Embassy – Ajay Kumar and Rudra Nath Juha,” according to the UAE court verdict.
Ibrahim’s family was in the dark for weeks after his arrest. “We had no knowledge about his whereabouts for 45 days after the arrest.”
Sunithal said her husband was innocent and had been unjustly incarcerated in a foreign country. In court, language was a barrier, they lacked legal support from the embassy and had to arrange a counsel themselves. They paid 75,000 dirham (around Rs 15,00,000 now) as the advocate’s fee. “The embassy provided no support.”
Sunithal alleged that Ibrahim’s counsel, a UAE national, didn’t argue the case well.
Ibrahim, now 50, was arrested in March 2014, and convicted in December 2016. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail, and a fine of AED 5,00,000, more than Rs 1 crore at the current exchange rate.
While in the UAE, Sunithal used to visit Ibrahim at Al-Wathba prison weekly. Struggling to make ends meet, she left the country in 2018 and began to live with her children in a rented apartment arranged by her brother near Ernakulam’s Aluva town. Ibrahim calls her twice a week, for five minutes each.
According to Sunithal, Ibrahim is mentally and physically weak. “He lost all hope about life,” she said. In every phone call, he asks whether she is doing anything for his release.
Seeking government support for Ibrahim and others similarly charged, Sunithal said she was disappointed that their cases haven’t received more attention.
“I request the government of India to please intervene and secure justice for Ibrahim,” she said. “He is being punished for a crime that he never committed.”
She sought his release and also financial compensation from the union government.
According to Sunithal, her husband suffered torture in jail and, among other health issues, has lost vision in one eye. Ibrahim also lost his mother while in jail. “She died due to pain after his arrest,” Sunithal said.
The family said Ibrahim may find it difficult to work after his release, on account of poor health.
Sunithal and Ibrahim have one son and three daughters. Their son is 21 years old, the daughters 19, 15, and eight. The youngest was only eight months old when Ibrahim was arrested.
“Our life has been destroyed because of this case. My children and I live now at the mercy of my brother, other family members and friends,” said Sunithal.
Sunithal’s father said his daughter’s life has been “sorrow and tears” since the arrest of Ibrahim. “What a cruelty it is,” he said.
‘I Felt Betrayed’: Another Keralite Convicted For Espionage
A third Keralite, also arrested under similar charges and jailed during the same period, was luckier than Shihani and Ibrahim.
Abbas, 49, a native of Malappuram in north Kerala, served a term of five years in a UAE jail. Having completed his sentence, he returned to India in August 2019.
Abbas, a father of three, was a supervisor at the Khalifa Port. He had been working there for more than two decades when he was arrested.
Like in the case of Shihani and Ibrahim, the charge against Abbas was that he spied for India. And like Shihani and Ibrahim, Abbas also communicated with an Indian officer because the latter introduced himself as an embassy official. “I communicated with one Sharma, an attaché with the Indian embassy in Abu Dhabi,” Abbas said.
Abbas, currently running a business in Bengaluru, told Article 14 that he gave the official the name of a US navy ship that had arrived at the port. “I was not aware I was doing something that would be counted as a serious offence,” Abbas said on being asked if he knew this amounted to espionage. “Will anyone knowingly sacrifice his own life?”
Abbas was arrested in June 2014. His verdict came in 2016.
Abbas said he underwent emotional torture rather than physical harassment. He was kept in isolation, and was not allowed to communicate with anyone, including his family, for nearly five months after the arrest, he said.
Interrogators alleged that he was an Indian army spy. “I replied that I don’t even have sufficient educational qualifications to be recruited by the army. I am a pre-degree dropout.”
Abbas said the embassy officials had learnt that he was working at the port when he visited the embassy to follow up on his daughter’s passport application.
He had visited the embassy in person because he needed his daughter’s passport urgently, to visit his ailing parents in Kerala.
UAE officials, he said, “misled” him after his arrest and “forced” him to sign some documents in Arabic. “They told me that I would be released and deported soon if I sign the papers.”
Abbas’s family met several politicians for assistance during his incarceration. The external affairs ministry informed his family, and the families of others arrested on similar charges, that the government would help, but warned them against sharing their stories with journalists. The government eventually extended them no support, Abbas said.
He had little hope in the union government because he was “a Muslim and a Malayalee”, he said.
The years in a UAE jail were “the biggest suffering one can face in life”, he said.
He felt betrayed that Indian officials trapped him. “I was not dealing with officials from the Pakistani or Sri Lankan embassy,” he said.
Asked if he has any advice for other Indians abroad, Abbas said, “Take care of yourself.”
Government Of India’s Responsibilities To Prisoners Abroad
The families of the men jailed in UAE said India has denied them legal and diplomatic support.
According to advocate Haris Beeran, the Supreme Court has recognised that the right to free legal aid is guaranteed under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution, through verdicts in cases such as M.H. Hoskot Vs. State Of Maharashtra (1978) and Hussainara Khatoon & Ors Vs. Home Secy., State of Bihar (1980).
He also quoted the Supreme Court judgment in Gaurav Kumar Bansal Vs. “Union of India (2015), where the apex court said a welfare state is “protector of life and liberty of its citizens not only within the country but also outside the country in certain situations”.
Beeran also pointed out the responsibilities, and opportunities, the government of India has under the ‘Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 1963’ (VCCR), an international treaty that defines a framework for consular relations between countries, in the cases of Indian prisoners in the UAE.
He specifically quoted Article 36 of the VCCR, which deals with consular access. It says consular officers shall have the right to visit a citizen from their country “who is in prison, custody or detention”, to communicate with him and to provide legal aid.
The three men—Shihani, Ibrahim and Abbas—were kept incommunicado for a considerably long period after their arrest. This also appears to be a violation of the provisions of the VCCR.
Advocate Beeran said the Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF), set up to provide assistance to citizens in distress abroad, could be used to support the men in the UAE jail.
The ICWF guidelines were recently revised to “expand the scope of welfare measures” offered through the fund. The fund is maintained through fees paid by Indian nationals for various consular services provided by Indian missions abroad.
A previous revision of the guidelines said the scheme is also “meant for release of overseas Indian nationals from detention centres”.
Advocate Beeran also said any Indian citizen imprisoned in a foreign country can request for a transfer to an Indian prison under the Repatriation of Prisoners Act, 2003.
Section 12 of the Repatriation of Prisoners Act says the union government may accept the transfer of a prisoner who is a citizen of India from a contracting state where he is undergoing “any sentence of imprisonment”. Notably, India has a contract for prisoners’ exchange with the UAE. The countries signed an agreement in 2011 on the “transfer of sentenced persons”.
However, as per official data, as of July 2019, no Indian prisoner from the UAE has been transferred to India under this agreement.
In 2018, the Consulate General of India in Dubai made a proposal to the central government for the transfer of 77 Indian prisoners to India under this agreement, but a decision is pending.
A Thread Of Hope For Families Of Jailed Men
The families of Shihani and Ibrahim said they remain hopeful for a positive intervention by the government of India.
They compared the Indian men’s case with that of some other cases.
They cited the case of Mathew Hedges, a doctoral student at Durham University, who was arrested in the UAE on espionage charges. After intense lobbying by the British government and an international outcry, Hedges was pardoned and released.
The UAE released him after playing video footage showing him appearing to confess that he had been trying to collect military secrets.
“Why couldn’t the Indian government intervene similarly? Doesn’t it have a very friendly relationship with the UAE?” asked a family member of Ibrahim.
Like other gulf nations, UAE also follows the tradition of granting clemency to a number of prisoners every year. In 2021, the country pardoned more than 400 prisoners.
The families of Shihani and Ibrahim said they believe that if the Modi government makes serious efforts with the UAE authorities, freedom for their beloved ones would be possible.
(Muhammed Sabith is a journalist and researcher.)