Schizophrenia verdict

October 30, 2016


THE Supreme Court recently ruled that schizophrenia is a ‘recoverable’ disease that fails to qualify as a mental health disorder under existing laws, thereby, clearing the path to execute Imdad Ali, a 50-year-old mentally ill prisoner. In response, his wife, Safia Bano sought a stay order, filing a review petition with the court on Oct 28. Not only is this verdict controversial and inhumane, it also sets a dangerous precedent. Fundamentally, it notes mentally ill individuals are not precluded from the death penalty. Moreover, it represents the cruelty that embodies the death penalty — a form of punishment that this newspaper does not endorse. And, it puts at risk the lives of other mentally ill death-row prisoners, including Khizer Hayat (he suffers from schizophrenia and has spent 17 years in prison). More shocking is the judiciary’s inability to recognise schizophrenia as a genetically determined illness, severe and incurable as extensive medical evidence has proven. Consider the response by the British Pakistani Psychiatrists Association in this newspaper. Explaining schizophrenia as a “remitting, relapsing illness”, they recommend evaluating mentally ill offenders, especially their capacity to distinguish between right and wrong at the time of committing the crime.

Even though certified by doctors as schizophrenic, Ali’s medical reports presented as evidence were dismissed by the court. Why? If the reports were not deemed credible, an independent psychiatric evaluation panel should have been appointed. Also, why did the jail authorities fail to approach the home department to move Ali to a hospital for treatment? If an individual has schizophrenia, he must be treated to determine if the illness is ‘recoverable’ or not. Because the system is rigged against the poorer mentally ill prisoners, their cases hinge on inept state prosecutors and jail authorities — again, underscoring the need for reforming the criminal justice system. Also, executing mentally disabled prisoners is a misinterpretation of medical jurisprudence and in conflict with international covenants — the ICCPR included. With Pakistan’s UN human rights review due in July 2017, the government must improve its civil and political rights record. Executions of the mentally ill do not serve any purpose other than tarnish our rights record. And because the court has failed to acknowledge that punishing a mentally ill offender serves no criminal justice aims, it is imperative that Imdad Ali be given a presidential pardon. In doing so, the government would be showing its commitment to upholding human rights and dignity.

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2016