After a murder conviction, Sharia law gives the victim's family three options: demand the death penalty, accept blood money or forgive the killer. The process is meant to prevent a cycle of revenge by reaching an understanding among the adult members of the victim's family that they will not seek further retribution.
But centuries after it was adopted as part of Islamic Sharia, elements of the system's implementation are causing some concern.
In the UAE, as The National reports today, defendants on trial for murder can languish in jail for years, if officials have difficulties in finding the heirs of the dead person. According to a court clerk, about 12 cases have been left unresolved due to problems in locating the heirs; the oldest such case is said to date back to 2006. Judges delay proceedings, even the presentation of a defence, until the victim's family lodges a decision.
The issue becomes complicated if the victim's family lives in remote villages in a foreign country, where the lack of an efficient address system may make it difficult even for their own government to find them.
Judges tend to delay murder cases, sometimes from the belief that this will give a victim's family that is insisting on execution the time to reconsider. As one court clerk said, a judge may even delay all murder cases under his control, due to obstacles in one case, with this motive. Judges also tend to set distant dates for hearings, slowing the process.
There is room in Sharia law for limiting the time judges can wait for families to issue a verdict. In wrongful death cases, for example, a person is required by Sharia to pay within three years. The purpose is to avoid delays in justice; and the same principle should apply to the time for a family's decision. The purpose of such trials, after all, is to pursue justice and prevent familial retribution.
If a family fails to respond to a court's request that a trial proceed, then the country has met its responsibility and should be able to issue a verdict within a fixed deadline - after that, it becomes the duty of the country of the killer or the victim to ensure harmony between citizens.
These delays are in no one's interest. They drain the country's court resources and stall justice. Authorities have good reason to consider ways to improve the court's efficiency in these cases by reforming the law on blood money and increasing cooperation with other countries.