DUBAI // Shackled and guarded, 17 Indian men sentenced to death for murdering a Pakistani man in a bootlegging turf war walked into a crowded courtroom to learn their fate yesterday.
The sound of the chains around their ankles and their plodding movements echoed throughout the room as their family members, acquaintances and lawyers watched anxiously.
The men watched as the court proceedings went on in Arabic. Soon, smiles of relief and joy broke out as they heard through an interpreter that the court had reduced their death sentences to just two years in prison, less time than they had already served, followed by deportation.
A three-year saga punctuated by twists and turns had nearly come to an end. Their lawyer said they could be free within days.
"It is as if the 17 men have had a rebirth," said Ranjit Kaur, the wife of Dharampal Singh, 24, one of the convicted men.
"My children and I will be seeing my husband after four long years. The entire village and our family members are overjoyed. We are now planning on how many of us will go to receive him at the airport," she said, speaking from a village in Punjab.
"I am thrilled that my brother will finally be released," said Jaspreet Singh, the brother of Kuldeep Singh, 28, another of the convicted men.
"He has been in jail for so many months. I spoke to my parents after that to convey the news and it is really an emotional moment for all of us. I really hope he can leave soon," said Mr Singh, a crane operator with a Dubai-based company.
"He came here to the UAE five years ago to support our family. After his arrest, I came here to find work and support the family," Mr Singh said.
In a press conference after the court proceedings yesterday, the Indian consulate said it was processing the men's travel documents, and would also arrange for their air tickets to India.
"The exact date of release and deportation will also depend on some procedural clearances by the UAE government," said Sanjay Verma, the Indian consul general.
Abdullah Salman, the men's lawyer, said they could return to their families within days, after completing court formalities and preparing travel documents.
Yesterday's ruling followed a blood money settlement of Dh3.4 million - one of the largest in the court's history - paid by the philanthropist SP Singh and other donors. The money was to be paid to the family of the victim, Misri Nazir Khan.
In the Appeal Court's last hearing in July, it received an official waiver from Khan's family, relinquishing Al Qasas rights - a Sharia provision that allows the relatives of murder victims to demand the death penalty - which they can waive by forgiving those convicted of the crime. The latter option is often exercised in exchange for blood money.
Khan was beaten to death in the Saaja Industrial Area of Sharjah in January 2009, in a fight over alcohol bootlegging. The 17 men were found guilty of the fatal beating and were sentenced to death in March 2010 by the Sharjah Court of First Instance.
Yesterday's verdict released them from death row, and will set them free.
Sarfaraz Ahmed, Khan's brother, said the family of the deceased were still awaiting receipt of the blood money, but were optimistic that they would receive the money soon.
"If we have taken the blood money and forgiven them," Mr Ahmed said from Pakistan, "it is their right that they should only go back and be reunited with their families. We bear no anger or ill will against them and have forgiven them."
Mr Salman, the men's lawyer, said three other men who were injured in the bootlegging dispute could file a civil case for compensation within the next 30 days, but that would not affect the release and deportation of the men.
Mr Verma of the Indian consulate said the Dh3.4m was one of the highest blood money settlements ever made, but added that "a lot more had been demanded".
He said the Indian government had appointed lawyers to defend the accused, given the "extraordinary nature" of the case. The lawyers had maintained throughout the proceedings that the men were innocent, and that there had been no evidence to prove their guilt.
An awareness campaign is educating labourers in the Emirates and Indian nationals in their home country about the UAE's laws, said Mr Singh, who paid more than 50 per cent of the blood money.
"Travel agents in India are handing out flyers with rules and regulations," he told reporters.
Each week, about 50 men from a Punjabi welfare organisation in the UAE visit labour camps and educate workers on the need to respect local laws. A number of Punjabi men have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in bootlegging.