Saudis Face Soaring Blood-Money Sums

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 27, 2008

MECCA, Saudi Arabia -- Badr al-Hasnani was 18 when he got into a fight with a soccer rival and fatally stabbed him. He confessed and was sentenced to death by beheading, as prescribed by sharia, or Islamic law.

For more than two years, Hasnani has been in a juvenile detention center awaiting execution while his family has tried to save him.

The parents of the victim, Majid al-Mahmoudi, have three options under sharia: to demand punishment, to spare Hasnani's life to receive blessings from God, or to grant clemency in exchange for diyah, or blood money.

The Mahmoudis agreed to accept diyah, setting the sum at $2 million in cash, much more than Hasnani's family can afford.

Hasnani's case highlights the growing trend of exorbitant blood-money demands, which many say are fueled by greed and tribal rivalries. Last month, tribal leaders in the central city of Kharj demanded nearly $11 million to pardon a man who had killed a member of their tribe.

Officials, clerics and writers have spoken out against the excessive requests, saying an ancient Islamic practice meant to financially support those who lose loved ones has been corrupted.

"Some families have become broke from these exaggerated sums being asked for diyah and live in poverty the rest of their lives," said Abdul-Aziz Qassim, an author and journalist who has written about blood money. "The families of some of the victims have turned it into a business."

To deal with the problem, the government recently set up the Reconciliation Committee, which works to lower the diyah requests and find wealthy donors to help the families of death row inmates unable to pay. Using a combination of religious preaching and mediation by influential tribal sheiks and prominent clerics, the committee says it has spared nearly 150 lives since its inception.

"Nothing is more precious to God than the sparing of a neck," said Nasser al-Zahrani, head of the Mecca office of the Reconciliation Committee. "We try to explain to these families with victims that it provides a blessing like no other."

Quoting the Koran, the Muslim holy book, Zahrani said he tells families: "He who takes a life, unless it be for murder or spreading terror in the land -- it would be as if he killed everyone. And he who saves one life, it is as if he has saved all of mankind."

Despite the committee's work, Saudi Arabia carried out 166 executions in 2007, compared with 39 a year earlier, according to the Rome-based human rights group Hands Off Cain, which campaigns against the death penalty.

In the kingdom, the death sentence is handed down in cases of murder, armed robbery, drug smuggling and rape. The committee does not get involved in multiple murders, cases involving both kidnapping and murder, or rape.

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