ABU DHABI //Delays in the justice system mean those accused of murder are facing waits of up to seven years in jail before they can even plead their innocence.
About 12 cases, the oldest of which dates to 2006, have been left in limbo at the Criminal Court because of difficulties in tracing the dead person's family.
Under Sharia, the heirs are given the authority to decide the killer's fate, which means the court cannot issue a verdict - or even listen to defence arguments - until the heirs are found and consulted.
The court and public prosecutors have the task of seeking out the heirs, often asking for the help of the victim's home country embassy. However, according to a legal source, cases become problematic when "in some countries, such as Pakistan, the victims come from villages even their government is not familiar with".
Another problem arises when friends of the victim are reluctant to come forward - such as when the dead person is an illegal immigrant.
"In many cases the victim himself is an illegal immigrant and so are his relatives, so whoever knows where they are and their full names would find himself charged with 'covering for an infiltrator'," said the legal source.
One murder case, put on hold in 2010 because the heirs could not be found, was reactivated last week when a witness in the case suddenly admitted he knew their whereabouts.
"The judge told him that the heirs could receive compensation if they show up to court, so he admitted that he has one of their phone numbers and notified them," said the source.
A Criminal Court clerk said that about 12 cases were left in limbo due to problems in locating the heirs, and that the oldest such case dated back to 2006.
"The files of those cases are piled up in the closet, the judge usually assigns one date for all, so if there is no progress in finding the heirs in one, they are all adjourned together," he explained.
Mabrouk Ali, a delegate lawyer, said such delays worked to the disadvantage of the defendant.
"The Criminal Court does not listen to the defence or issue a verdict until the heirs are found... what if the defendant were to be cleared? All of that is delayed until the relatives are found."
Even defendants who are subsequently found guilty may find that they end up serving more jail time than they would otherwise, as in cases where the heirs grant a complete pardon murderers are sentenced to only three years in jail.
In exceptional cases, accused killers have benefited from the system. In one the accused killer has been in jail since 2006 awaiting trial, but the prison walls are the one thing keeping the man alive, according to Mr Ali.
"The victim was his friend and they come from the same village, so if he were released and deported the victim's family might have avenged their deceased in their own way."
This case is heard only once or twice a year. "The last time it was heard in January the judge adjourned it to August to provide more time to find the heirs," added Mr Ali.
When the court is satisfied it has exhausted all efforts to find the heirs, the case is forwarded to the President, who assumes the heir's role, following a hadith by the Prophet Mohammed: "Then the sultan is the guardian of whom has no guardian."
But getting to this point is itself not always straight forward - in one case the Criminal Court gave up on finding the heirs after five years of searching. The court then removed the case from its roll, but the public prosecution appealed the decision. The Appeals Court has since returned the case to the Criminal Court, ordering it to continue looking.