DUBAI // Sunday’s sentencing to death of two young men for selling Dh1,500 worth of marijuana to an undercover policeman is almost certain to be overturned, according to experts.
Drug dealing is one of six serious crimes that carry a maximum penalty of death under federal law. The others are terrorism, rape, espionage and converting from Islam.
However, experts yesterday stressed that in every instance in which a lower court has issued a death sentence for drugs crimes over the past five years, the penalty has been overturned by higher courts.
The two men, a 19-year-old Syrian and a 21-year-old Briton, were given the death sentence at the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court.
They had been arrested after a CID officer posing as a customer bought 20 grams of marijuana. The officer had earlier bought Dh500 worth to test and confirm it was marijuana.
A Sudanese co-defendant was sentenced to one year in jail and deportation for consuming the drug, while a 17-year-old Emirati was sent for rehabilitation.
The Briton’s lawyer said yesterday that they will definitely appeal the verdict, adding that it was unusual for a drug dealer to receive a death sentence when not dealing massive amounts.
A spokesman for the UK’s foreign office told Reuters that officials were in close contact with the Briton’s legal team and were providing consular assistance, but said they could not get involved in the UAE’s judicial process.
Judges and legal experts stressed that the death sentence faced strict protocols and checks.
A panel of three judges at the Court of First Instance must be unanimous in their verdict.
According to the former chief justice of the Dubai Criminal Court, Chief Justice Ahmed Ibrahim Saif, if any of the three judges disagree then the sentence must be commuted. Any case in which a death sentence is issued must go to the Appeal Court for a second hearing. If the Appeal Court upholds the sentence the case must then be heard by the Court of Cassation or the Federal Supreme Court.
Even if the final court upholds the sentence – and even when the defendant pleads guilty – “an execution still requires the signature of the President or the Ruler of the emirate”, according to Chief Justice Saif.
The Abu Dhabi Criminal Courts Chief Justice, Sayed Abdul Baseer, had previously stressed: “There are strict protocols, checks and balances to executions. We don’t just execute for petty crimes.”
Legal groups yesterday offered support to the families of the two young men.
Radha Stirling, a lawyer and the founder of Detained in Dubai, a charitable organisation which offers support to those jailed in the UAE, said: “It is unimaginable what the families will be going through. It’s unimaginable to have two such young boys sentenced to death so harshly.”
She said, however, she was confident the sentences would be overturned, but warned the court process was lengthy and could take years.
According to Chief Justice Abdul Baseer, even when a defendant pleads guilty to charges punishable by death, the law requires the case to go through all levels of the justice system.
But the death sentence is rarely issued in cases of drug dealing.
An investigation by The National in 2010 found that every death sentence handed down for drug offences since 2007 – more than a dozen in all – was later rejected for procedural errors.
Abu Dhabi Judicial Department officials said most of the sentences were sent back by the Appeals Court before they reached the Court of Cassation, the highest court in the emirate and final point of appeal.
The Court of Cassation cited failures in collecting information, making arrests or in court procedures.
Errors included a translator who was not under oath when translating the defendant’s testimony, a lower court that did not issue a unanimous verdict, an arrest made without a clearance from public prosecution, a video recording of an arrest that was not clear, and confessions incorrectly obtained.
“The Court of Cassation reviewed many death penalties issued by lower courts to defendants convicted of drug trafficking, but the court has not upheld a single case,” an official at the judicial department noted.
Fikri Nasrallah, a legal consultant, said that death penalties for drugs-related offences received greater scrutiny as they went through the higher courts.
“The role of the superior courts is essentially to review verdicts of inferior courts and see if they are legally sound,” Mr Nasrallah said. “Superior courts will often find that police or lower courts followed wrong procedures in arresting or convicting a defendant.”
Mr Nasrallah believes that issuing tough sentences in the lower court has two aims: deterring people from committing such offences, while also giving a convicted person the chance to present a better case in the appeals court.
The death penalty is rooted in Shariah, and despite criticism by rights groups, is widely regarded as irrevocable by jurists throughout the Muslim world.
In fact, even if a Muslim country sought to abolish the death penalty it would be impossible under Shariah, legal experts note. “It is a religious responsibility given to the courts,” said Chief Justice Abdul Baseer.
One poll, compiled for Al Aan TV’s Nabd Al Arab (Arabs’ Pulse) programme by YouGov Siraj last year, showed that 65 per cent of residents were against abolishing the death penalty. But only 46 per cent said drug smuggling should be punished by death.
Because Shariah is implemented in death penalty cases, the standard of evidence has to be extremely high – for instance, officers in a sting operation would not be valid witnesses because they would not be considered independent. “When the Court of Cassation remands [sends back] a death penalty, it must be because there was a mistake in the legal procedures,” said Magistrate Abdulaziz Al Mulla of the Judicial Department, who specialises in Shariah.
“We have three levels in our court system. That is why the sentence of the lower court is usually heavy.”
Officials in the Ministry of Interior last year revealed that Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, the Minister of Interior and Deputy Prime Minister, had ordered all concerned authorities to evaluate current anti-narcotics laws and suggest reforms.
A death sentence issued in February 2010 in Ras Al Khaimah to five traffickers who attempted to sell more than 5kg of heroin and hashish worth Dh50,000 was described as a “strong” warning to others.
Judge Bilal Abd El Baqi, who presided over the panel of judges in that case, said the punishment was in accordance with the law of the land. “It [the verdict] has many dimensions,” he said. “It is to keep the stability of the community and to keep the health of all people in general; to keep the economy straight. And above all of this, it is the implementation of the law.”
Dubai differs from Abu Dhabi in its approach to the federal drugs law. The large number of drugs cases that arise from smugglers targeting the emirate’s airport have led to a policy introduced in August 2008 by the Dubai Public Prosecutors office.
Under this policy, visitors caught with less than 20 grams of illegal drugs at Dubai International Airport can be deported immediately rather than jailed for up to four years.
Cases are referred to the Attorney General’s technical office to determine if suspects should or should not be referred to court, according to then Bur Dubai second public prosecution chief prosecutor, Mohammad Ali Rustom.
* With additional reporting by Haneen Dajani.