ABU DHABI // Although the Middle East has drawn criticism for a heavy use of capital punishment - Amnesty International reported nearly 700 people had been executed in 2008 - the UAE announces far more death sentences than it actually carries out. Since 2004, there have been eight executions across the country, according to Chief Justice Syed Abdul Baseer, the head of the criminal court in Abu Dhabi since 2002.
"There are strict protocols, checks and balances to executions," he said. "We don't just execute for petty crimes." He said that even if a country wanted to abolish the death penalty it would be impossible under Shariah. "It is a religious responsibility given to the courts," he said. There are fewer than 70 inmates on death row in Abu Dhabi, according to guards and former inmates of Al Wathba prison.
Dubai Public Prosecution sources said 43 people had been sentenced to death since 2003. The last known execution was in Ras al Khaimah in 2008. Justice Abdul Baseer said most opposition to the death penalty came from "secular countries". Yet the death penalty continues to stir controversy, even in the Muslim world. The planned execution in Saudi Arabia of Ali Hussain Sibat, a Lebanese television host accused of sorcery, drew condemnation internationally and official calls from Lebanon to halt the beheading. The execution has been delayed but not officially rescinded.
In the UAE, even if a defendant pleads guilty to charges punishable by death, the law requires the case to receive numerous hearings - at the court of first instance, the appeal court and the court of cassation or the Federal Supreme Court. In some cases, the victim's family will accept blood money - diyyah - to spare the offender's life. However, they have the right to refuse any offer. Justice Abdul Baseer said: "Even if the person pleads guilty to murder, an execution still requires the signature of the President. The process in the UAE could take up to five years."
Most judges in the Arab world have to decide which aspects of Shariah to follow. It states, for example, that married Muslims who commit adultery must be stoned to death, but that punishment is rarely used in the region, with the exception of Saudi Arabia. Several times in the past year, Justice Abdul Baseer has seen defendants plead guilty to adultery. He often reminds them that the sentence, if they plead guilty, is death by stoning, and asks them to retract their plea - occasionally up to four times. If they do, they are usually sentenced to less than a year in jail and deportation.
In practice, the death penalty is kept for violent murder cases which cause a public outcry. Although the method varies across the region - from hanging to beheading - the UAE uses the firing squad. According to Justice Abdul Baseer, who has sentenced 23 people to death, offenders are often shot in the heart at arms' length by a single bullet. Some reports say the offender is blindfolded, while others say he or she is given the option of seeing the executioner.