Blood money

A touchy diplomatic situation in Pakistan ended when the CIA contractor who had killed two men in Lahore was freed this week. The American government claimed that Raymond Davis deserved diplomatic immunity. The Pakistani government thought otherwise. Pakistani’s spy agency said it knew nothing about Davis and so the trial was set to proceed.

Now, seven weeks after his arrest, Davis is free, at the behest of the murdered men’s families, who pardoned him. Under Sharia law, which plays a role in Pakistani law, families of victims can forgive criminals, bypassing secular courts and laws.

The families will receive compensation for their loss. No one will say how much exactly, but estimates range from a half-million dollars to a $2.3 million.

This approach to criminal law seems odd at first. But the US routinely pays money to civilians who have been wrongfully killed by soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. And this is what happens in civil wrongful death suits in the America.

We don’t like to think that we can put a price on a life, but we do all the time. While it appears to be contrary to the idea that all lives are priceless, monetary compensation is a just way to both penalize the wrongdoer and to offer restitution, no matter how inadequate, to the survivors.

The payment to the Pakistani families has been labeled “blood money.” But those words prejudice the argument against such a system, equating it with “blood lust” and being “blood thirsty.” Many families of victims in America bitterly complain about our approach in which they feel shut out of the judicial system. To help alleviate that pain, some courts allow families to speak before sentencing. This is really where “blood lust” is exhibited, as many families at that point are seeking revenge. In fact, since the expression of their feelings and the length of the sentence is all that they are asked to talk about, it may well increase this very emotion.

One problem with the Sharia approach is that the wealthy may be able to buy their way to freedom. Poor families may well prefer cash to having someone sit in prison or even face execution and wealthy criminals can make that deal very enticing by offering huge sums.

There is good reason to be critical of Sharia law in general, as we have seen it wielded against women, apostates or blasphemers, but I don’t know enough about it to say that our criminal justice system is superior in regard to offer the families money in place of putting the offender in prison. Clearly approach our system also has serious flaws around finding guilt since those who can afford high-priced lawyers stand a much better chance of being acquitted than the poor.

I am not advocating we adopt the “blood money” approach to criminal cases. It shouldn’t be a family’s decision exclusively whether an offender is brought to justice. Society has a stake in criminal justice as well. But the release of Raymond Davis in return to monetary compensation to the families of the murder victims gives me pause to think about our own system and how it responds to the real material and psychological needs of the families involved.

If found guilty in a secular court, Davis would have served a harsh jail sentence. What would have been served by that?




2 thoughts on “Blood money

  1. How ironic that Sharia law which we find loathsome in some aspects can compensate the indirect victims of crime with money. This provides some balm for their losses, but robs the state of its ability to exact punishment for social transgressions. Which is more important, the victims or the self righteousness of the state?

    Perhaps we can learn even from a system which does not usually respect our precepts and sensibilities

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