SHARJAH // Seventeen Indian men on death row for nearly a year celebrated in the dock yesterday when an appeals court judge overturned their death sentences.
"It's going to be hard for this court to uphold a death sentence for any of the suspects on this evidence," Judge Abdullah Yousef al Shamsi said after hearing evidence from two police officers at the Sharjah Court of Appeals.
"For every lawyer's question they have replied, 'We don't know', or 'We don't have it'," the judge said.
He set aside the death sentences on the men, who had been convicted of murdering a Pakistani, when a representative of the dead man's family said they would accept financial compensation.
There was jubilation among the 17 in the dock when a translator told them the judge's decision. Judge al Shamsi asked guards to take the men away and let them celebrate in their cells.
The 17 Indians were found guilty in March of beating Misri Nazir Khan to death and injuring three others during a fight over bootlegged alcohol in the Saaja industrial area of Sharjah in January 2009.
Their appeal was subject to frequent delays because of difficulties in finding a translator.
At a hearing in September, the appeals court heard that three prosecution witnesses to the incident had left the country, and the last remaining eye-witness said he was unable to identify any of the 17 men as having been involved.
In October, the court was told that police investigators had been unable to find fingerprints or physical evidence to link the 17 men to the murder. A member of the forensics team that examined the crime scene said there was no match between their examinations and the men.
Police witnesses told the court yesterday that they learnt of the murder from staff at Kuwait Hospital in Sharjah, where the body was taken, and no arrests were made at the crime scene because police arrived after the killers had fled the scene.
Torn shirts collected at the scene could not be connected to anyone under suspicion and fingerprints from the scene were never matched with the 17 men. The fingerprints could not be produced for yesterday's hearing.
The families of the 17 men were delighted by yesterday's decision, even though their loved ones may have to spend more time in prison.
Moti Singh, 48, whose son is one of the men, said he was overjoyed at the reversal of the sentence. "Needless to say the news of my son has brought extreme joy to the entire family," he said. "His mother had been crying all these days. What is there in life without your child?
"What has happened, has happened. When he comes home we will distribute sweets in the community. It's a must. We have got our son back.
"That's the sweetest thing in our life. Let him come back home. That's what we are waiting for. We are not thinking of anything else right now."
The former Indian cabinet minister B S Ramuwalia joined in the praise for the court ruling, but criticised unscrupulous employment agents who had put the men in a difficult position, and the Indian authorities for not doing more to regulate such agents.
"I am extremely happy about the whole decision," he said. "I thank the Sharjah Ruler and the judiciary, who have looked at the case sympathetically.
"These are poor people and their families do not get to eat two square meals a day. They have been duped by unscrupulous agents who openly operate in India under the nose of the Indian government. The Indian government should be ashamed of this."
The lawyer for 16 of the 17 men also welcomed the ruling. "At least we can now count on all voices involved in this case having been heard in court and say this was a fair trial," Mohammed Salman al Marzouqi said.
Another defence lawyer, Hannah al Shahba, criticised the lack of concrete evidence against the 17 men. "A death sentence is too big for 17 people without enough evidence," she said. "If this sentence had not been overturned it would have given a bad reputation to the judicial system."
The Sharjah Court of Appeals will reconvene on February 17 to announce the amount of financial compensation to be paid, in consultation with the men's families and their diplomatic representatives.
Federal law states that blood money for an expatriate is Dh100,000. The court can still keep the men behind bars and has not yet ruled out imposing a prison sentence.
"They can still give them a year, two or three as is the precedent in similar cases," Mr al Marzouqi said. "They have already served about two years."