Blood Money: Diyat

LA Times: Aziz Ahmed was supposed to die. In 2006 he used a meat cleaver to kill a friend he thought had been sleeping with his wife. He confessed and was sentenced to be hanged.

But last month Ahmed won his freedom; not because his confession was recanted or fresh evidence was presented, but because of a wad of cash. He paid the victim’s family $9,400 and walked out of prison a free man. The slain man’s relatives said they would use the money to buy the widow a cookware shop in this dusty farm town in Punjab, near the Indian border.

“We’re not bitter about this at all,” said Mohammed Nasir, brother of the victim, Ghulam Sarwar. “This money will take care of Ghulam’s wife and children.”

What outsiders might describe as “blood money” is a tenet of Islamic law sanctioned by Pakistani jurisprudence and used, by some estimates, in up to 60% of homicide cases here. The practice is called diyat, and it could be the means by which the United States and Pakistan extricate themselves from a dangerous diplomatic row that has strained relations between the two governments.

It is important to understand that diyat arose as a progressive measure designed to substitute restitution for retribution. Restitution systems have a number of virtues. One virtue of restitution is that it puts the victim’s family at the center of the process rather than ignoring their interests. Criminal law, in contrast, replaces the interests of victims with the interests of the state. Perhaps this is sometimes necessary (what to do about victims without families?) but restitution systems have been quite sophisticated at dealing with these problems. David Friedman, for example, explains the Icelandic system of wergeld and Bruce Benson discusses the medieval Ango-Saxon system. I am not aware of much work, however, on Islamic diyat. Randy Barnett makes the case for restitution as a substitute for criminal law today.

If restitution is to work well it’s crucial that restitution be set at the right levels. It’s not always clear that this is done. In Saudi Arabia maximum compensation prices are as follows (from Wikipedia, according to this document, take at your own risk)

  • 100,000 riyals if the victim is a Muslim man
  • 50,000 riyals if a Muslim woman
  • 50,000 riyals if a Christian or Jewish man
  • 25,000 riyals if a Christian or Jewish woman
  • 6,666 riyals if a Hindu man
  • 3,333 riyals if a Hindu woman.

More generally, however, Diyat will vary by the wages and prospects of the deceased. If that sounds wrong do note that US tort law compensates in a similar way, although as a supplement rather than substitute for criminal law.

The optimal scope and overlap of criminal and tort law is an under-researched topic.


Comments for this post are closed