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United Arab Emirates: Good Samaritan Pays Blood Money to Save Young Men from Execution

(June 15, 2017) An appeals court in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, issued a decision on May 25, 2017, absolving ten young Indian men from Punjab of the murder of a Pakistani fellow worker. The men were pardoned after a Dubai-based businessman paid blood money to the victim’s father.  (Anju Agnihotri Chaba, Back from Death Row: 10 Punjabi Youths Cleared of Murder Charge After Paying Blood Money, Will Soon Be Free, INDIAN EXPRESS (May 26, 2017).) The men, most in their twenties and all from poor families, had been sentenced to death in October 2016 for murdering Mohammad Farhan in a brawl over alcohol bootlegging in July 2015.  (Pakistani Man Pardons 10 Indians Who Allegedly Killed His Son in UAE, HUFFPOST INDIA (Mar. 27, 2017); Binsal Abdul Kader, Ten Indians on Death Row Await Pardon Decision, GULF NEWS (Apr. 19, 2017).)

The men were spared through the intervention of S.P. Singh Oberoi, chairman of the NGO Sarbat Da Bhala Charitable Trust. Oberoi has already spent about 10 million dirhams (Dh) (about US$2.72 million) to save 78 Asian men convicted of murder in the UAE from execution by paying blood money on their behalf to their victims’ families.  (Kader, supra; Sharmila Dhal, Indian Businessman Paves Way for 10 Youths to Escape the Gallows, GULF NEWS (Mar. 29, 2017).) He has also bought over 800 airline tickets for other youths who had served their sentences but were still in prison because they could not afford to fly home and is currently working to help free 17 Indians and two Pakistanis detained in two murder cases.  (Dhal, supra.)

In the recent case, after Oberoi was contacted by the convicted Punjabi men’s families, he agreed to help “because … the families – mothers, wives and children … were in utter despair for no fault of theirs.  I just feel as human beings, everyone needs to get a second chance.”  (Chaba, supra; Dhal, supra.)  Oberoi subsequently appealed to the Al Ain Court of Appeals on the grounds that the youths were the only breadwinners in their families, who were thus desperate to save their lives.  (Dhal, supra.)  He also sent the Trust’s Pakistani manager to Peshawar to talk to the victim’s family and their relatives and ultimately succeeded in securing the pardon.  (Pakistani Man Pardons 10 Indians, supra.)  Oberoi said it had been a tough task to obtain a pardon from the Pakistani father but “[w]e somehow made him agree. … And as per the Sharia law, have submitted Dhs 200,000 [about US$54,440] as blood money in the court.”  (Id.)  Mohammad Farhan’s father, Mohammad Riaz, appeared in the Court on March 22 with a letter of consent to the pardon of the accused Indians.  (Dhal, supra.)

Payment of Blood Money in Islamic and UAE Law

The primary Islamic legal basis for the payment of blood money (diya) is found in a verse of the Qur’an that states, “[i]t is unlawful for a believer to take the life of another believer unless this happens by accident.  Whoever accidentally kills a believer must free a slave who is a believer and pay blood money to the victim’s family, unless they forgo it as an act of charity.”  (Qur’an, Surat-an-Nisaa’ 92 (in Arabic; translated by author).)

In regard to the place of diya in classical Sharia (Islamic law), scholar Daniel Pascoe writes:

In the context of intentional killings, or murder … there are two types of available punishments: (1) the death penalty, imposed by Sharia courts as a form of atonement and carried out by the state rather than the victim; or (2) the payment of diya, if insisted by the victim’s family, which relieves the murderer of the retaliatory punishment of death, though he or she still faces the possibility of serving a prison sentence in some jurisdictions.

In the latter case, the family of the victim that forgoes revenge gains in standing and in the afterlife, and receives monetary compensation for the family’s loss. Diya, as a pecuniary response to murder, is generally supported by the state, and it is comparable to a settlement in a wrongful death tort action, precluding the aggrieved party from fully enforcing their civil right in court.  (Daniel Pascoe, Is Diya a Form of Clemency?, 34(1) BOSTON UNIVERSITY INTERNATIONAL LAW JOURNAL 149, 156 (2016) (citations omitted).)

The UAE is an Islamic-law jurisdiction where the death penalty is used to punish the crime of murder, but which “concurrently provide[s] the murderer the option to pay diya to the victim’s next of kin to escape execution.”  (Id. at 158.)  In the UAE, the minimum diya amount is set at Dh200,000, but the actual compensation amount is dependent on a lawyer’s ability to “show and clarify to the judge the extent of the damages.”  (Shireena Al-Nowais, UAE’s Compensation System Is More Reasonable Than Those in the West, Says Expert, NATIONAL (Nov. 15, 2014).)

 Lure of Easy Money in Illegal Alcohol Trade

According to Oberoi, Punjabi laborers from poverty-stricken backgrounds often resort to taking substantial loans from Indian recruitment agents to secure visas to work in the UAE as plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and masons, yet their low wages make them unable to pay back the loans and meet their financial needs. (Dhal, supra; Pakistani Man Pardons 10 Indians, supra; Dozens of Punjabis in UAE Illegal Alcohol Trade, ZEE NEWS (Nov. 27, 2010).) Oberoi added, “[a]s the interest builds up and families come under pressure, they are tempted to look for ways to make easy money.”  (Dhal, supra.)  One of these ways is the reportedly rampant illegal trade in alcohol, despite the fact that the illegal sale of alcohol and related offenses are very serious crimes in the UAE.  (Sharmila Dhal & Salam Al Amir, Murky World of UAE’s Liquor Bootleggers, GULF NEWS (Apr. 15, 2010).)

Purchasing and drinking alcohol in the UAE (with the exception of Sharjah, a dry Emirate) is restricted to non-Muslims over the age of 21, who must also obtain a personal liquor license to drink alcohol at home. (Frequently Asked Questions – Abu Dhabi & Dubai, UAE, HELEN ZIEGLER & ASSOCIATES (last visited June 8, 2017).) Apart from licensed clubs, bars, or restaurants and airport duty-free outlets, alcohol can be purchased only at licensed shops, which “cater to only a small section of the expat population, as they are out of the reach of labourers and even the middle and upper classes who find their prices prohibitive.”  (Id.)  In addition, the alcohol permits must be periodically renewed for a fee and stipulate a fixed quota of purchase and, thus, “there is a huge demand that keeps the underground market alive.”  (Id.)

Reportedly, “the illegal trade is largely controlled by Iranians and Balochis and, to some extent, Africans … [with] Indians and Pakistanis serv[ing] as their foot soldiers, making deliveries at labour camps, hotels and even residences in the various emirates.” (Dhal & Al Amir, supra.)  Rival bootlegging factions establish clearly defined territories, and “trespassers are dealt with ruthlessly.”  (Dozens of Punjabis in UAE Illegal Alcohol Trade, supra.)  These routine bloody turf battles in UAE labor camps over control of the alcohol trade “have landed dozens of Indian youth in jail, many of them … facing death for allegedly killing rival gang members.”  (Id.)