Call for more information on the death penalty

A survey reveals people in the UAE want more transparency about the death sentence, the ultimate sanction available to the courts and about which little is known.

In the past month, at least eight men have been sentenced to die in the UAE; one for the rape and murder of a four-year-old, two for killing a sales executive in an airport car park, and five for trafficking drugs. But as these eight men proceed through the justice system and the courts consider their appeals, a survey reveals an appetite in the UAE for more transparency about the death sentence, the ultimate sanction available to the courts and about which little is known.

The survey reveals some reservations about capital punishment. Although only six per cent of respondents think it is applied too readily, just 23 per cent believe it is applied only in the right circumstances. And 21 per cent think it is handed down more frequently to people from certain countries. More than twice as many Emiratis (34 per cent) as any other group believe that capital punishment is not used often enough, a view less common among Arab expatriates (14 per cent), westerners (12 per cent) and Asians (12 per cent).

However, twice as many westerners (12 per cent) as any other group think the death penalty is handed out too readily. Interestingly, 36 per cent of those surveyed could not make up their mind about capital punishment, an ambivalence expressed across all groups, headed by Arab expatriates and Asians (each 38 per cent), followed by westerners (28 per cent) and Emiratis (26 per cent). Transparency is a widely shared concern when it comes to the number of death sentences passed and executed in the UAE: overall, 76 per cent support open public access to the statistics; only 11 per cent think the public does not need to know and 12 per cent are not sure.

The demand for transparency is strongest among westerners (93 per cent), followed by Arab expatriates (83 per cent) and Asians (72 per cent). Only 64 per cent of Emiratis would like to see more openness, while 18 per cent oppose it. The death sentence, experts said, is a punishment mandated by Shariah law, but is rarely carried out in this country. No one in the UAE's justice system, law enforcement agencies or Government would comment officially, but more than a dozen interviews confirmed some basic facts about capital punishment in the UAE:

Death warrants must be signed by both the emirate's Ruler and the President of the UAE. A Ruler or the victim's family can pardon a killer. The official method of execution is firing squad, except in the case of adultery, in which case it is stoning. The last known execution took place in 2008, in Ras al Khaimah. After that, details are murky. Sources in Dubai Public Prosecution said 43 people had been sentenced to die since 1993. In Abu Dhabi, guards and former inmates of Al Wathba prison, which is estimated to hold more than 1,500 people, say that death row holds fewer than 70 inmates.

A suspect can be sentenced to death for seven crimes: murder, espionage, terrorism, drug trafficking, rape, converting from Islam and giving government secrets to enemy states. After the sentence is handed down, prisoners are appointed a lawyer to handle their appeal. In all emirates, the case must go through all levels of the judiciary. In Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Ras al Khaimah, that means the Court of First Instance, Appeals Court and the Court of Cassation. The other four emirates have only a first instance and appeals court.

In every case, the final judicial authority lies with the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi. If all levels of the judiciary sentence an offender to death, the Minister of Justice presents the case to the Ruler of the emirate where the case was adjudicated. Signatures from the Ruler of the emirate as well as the President of the country are required for any execution. "There are so many checks and balances to make it really the last resort," said an official from the Abu Dhabi Attorney General's office, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Verdicts from court and implementation of these verdicts are two very different things," the official added. "The Constitution allows for the death sentence and judges hand down these sentences when necessary, but it is rarely enforced. Just because someone gets the death sentence doesn't mean he is going to be executed." The Minister of Interior declined to comment on the number of people awaiting execution in Abu Dhabi, in keeping with official practice.

Before an execution is carried out, several additional factors are taken into consideration. The Islamic penal code prohibits executions from being carried out on public or religious holidays. Pregnant women may not be executed until two years after giving birth. The condemned person's family may visit him on the day of the execution in a location separate from where he will be put to death. A religious representative can visit the condemned if he wishes it.

Executions are carried out at correctional facilities. Representatives from the Public Prosecutor's office, the correctional facility's warden, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Justice and a forensics doctor must be present. Members of the victim's family may attend the execution. As the moment of execution approaches, the warden recites the charges to the condemned person and reads the verdict aloud. If the person wishes to add any statements, the words are recorded by a public prosecutor.

The exact number of executioners is not known; guards, inmates and prosecutors offered varying accounts, from three riflemen to 10. But in all cases, only some of the executioners are given live ammunition. The rest have blank cartridges, so that no one rifleman will know for sure that he fired one of the fatal shots. The condemned are bound, blindfolded and, by some accounts, faced away from the firing squad. In some cases, the condemned can request not to wear a blindfold.

After the execution, the forensic doctor must confirm the death and enter a statement into the record. "The Quran does not specify an exact method of killing, except in the case of a married person who commits adultery, and that is stoning until death," one of the country's top advisers on legal affairs said on condition of anonymity. "The Quran does specify that a killer is to be killed in the same way he killed. Each country interprets this in its own way."

Egypt uses hanging. Saudi Arabia uses decapitation. Most other Muslim countries use variations of the firing squad, experts said. The adviser said the UAE "tries everything to avoid the death penalty". A pardon from a death penalty can come from a Ruler or, more often, through negotiations with the victim's family, which may choose to accept blood money, or diyaa. "Capital punishment is only carried out in the most severe cases of heinous crimes and, even then, we urge the families of the victim to show mercy, forgo the death penalty and accept blood money instead," said Ahmed al Khateri, the head of the Federal National Council's Legislative and Legal Affairs Committee, who also has been a judge in RAK for more than 17 years.

"There are so many conditions that have to be met before a death sentence can be issued that it rarely takes place," said Mr al Khateri, who as a judge oversaw only three cases that brought the death sentence. Despite the death penalty's rarity, it cannot be abolished, the legal adviser said. "First, it is embedded in the Islamic Shariah law. Abolishing it would be unreligious," the adviser said.

"Second, it is simply political. There are many cases where life in prison is simply not good enough. It is there to be used judiciously in extremely violent crimes. "Third, it is a social tactic. In tribal justice, a murderer must be murdered. If the state doesn't execute the murderer, the family of the victim will. If the state executes the murderer it will avoid a feud and a vicious cycle of vengeance."

It is for these three reasons that few Muslims publicly oppose capital punishment, he said. "Let us not forget that executions happen in many secular countries," the adviser said. "It is not specific to Islam. In fact, it happened long before Islamic law was written."