ABU DHABI // Judges in capital murder cases must follow Sharia law without exception, the Federal Supreme Court has ruled - but experts say the decision could mean long delays in some trials. The requirements of Sharia state that the victim's relatives must accept or decline blood money in court. But in cases in which the victim's relatives cannot be easily found or cannot attend court, trials can be adjourned for months or even years.
In extreme instances, where there are no relatives, the judge, acting in the name of the state, will become the victim's guardian and decide on blood money. The UAE legal system follows a dual track, with laws passed by the Government and Sharia law functioning side-by-side. Judges have discretion as to which laws take precedence. The Supreme Court ruling, handed down on June 8 and publicly disclosed in a document released this week, says judges have no discretion in cases of premeditated murder, which call for the death penalty.
The case in the ruling originated in Sharjah and involved an illegal immigrant whose identity was never known. SSS, an Indian, was convicted of murder late last year by Sharjah Criminal Court and sentenced to death. But the court of appeal changed the sentence to life imprisonment. Neither court followed the Sharia requirement for the family of the victim to attend the sentencing. Prosecutors appealed to the Federal Supreme Court, which ruled that only Sharia law applies in such cases, meaning the family's blood money decision must be included before the case could continue.
"Cases that involve premeditated murder must be tried according to Sharia law if the case met the Islamic conditions," Chief Justice Falah al Hajeri wrote in the court document. "It has been proved that he intentionally killed the victim, which means the case must be tried according to Sharia." At least two such cases in Abu Dhabi Criminal Court are in indefinite adjournment because of the ruling.
In one, AK, 39, a driver, was convicted of killing ZRR, his employer's cook, after she told him she was pregnant. He first appeared before the Criminal Court three months ago and his case has been repeatedly adjourned because the family of the victim, who is from Indonesia, has not been able to attend to say whether they wanted blood money. Justice Ahmed Abdulhameed of the Federal Supreme Court, who specialises in murder cases, said the Supreme Court ruling ensured that the victim's family's rights were upheld.
"There is only one way to prevent a death penalty: when the family of the victim forfeit their right either by accepting the blood money or forgiving the victim," Justice Abdulhameed said in an interview. "This is a right guaranteed by the Islamic Sharia to the family of the victim; no one can deprive them that right unless they say yes or no to the death penalty." He said public prosecutors must exert maximum effort in finding relatives.
"It does not mean that when we implement the Sharia law, the defendant is guaranteed a death sentence," he said. "On the contrary, the family in most cases forfeit their right and would accept the blood money." If the family does not accept the blood money, he said, negotiations would continue until the moment of execution, at which the family must be present. He said the Government usually encourages families to accept the blood money, and in some cases the Government itself pays.
Salim Muntaser, a legal consultant based in Abu Dhabi, said the court has the power to force victims' relatives to attend the trial, but rarely used it. He cited a case, currently at the Court of Cassation, that has been in progress for a year and two months because the family of the victim did not wish to attend. The victim, an Emirati from Al Ain, was killed in his house by a man from Sri Lanka who was having an affair with the victim's housemaid. The Sri Lankan was sentenced to death more than a year ago, but the Emirati man's family refused to attend the appeal trials in protest.
"If they refuse to attend, the court can order the police to arrest them," Mr Muntaser said. "But usually they do not do that out of respect for their feelings." firstname.lastname@example.org