I remember the cold December day last year when Khizar Hayat’s petition seeking his transfer to a mental health facility was dismissed by the Lahore High Court (LHC).
I was disappointed — but more so, I feared for his life. And these fears were realised when Khizar’s black warrant was issued on January 10 this year, setting the date for his execution on January 15.
Fortunately, Justice Project Pakistan — the legal action non-profit I work for — represented him at the highest forum and was able to get a timely stay on his execution from the Supreme Court.
Khizar, a police constable hailing from a small village northwest of Lahore, was said to be a kind man, but those who remember him also described him as “very slow” and easily manipulated.
He had been brainwashed by a pir who had convinced Khizar to sign over his lands and property to him. Under the pir’s influence, Khizar was arrested for killing his fellow policeman and friend, Ghulam Ghous, in Lahore in October 2001.
He was sentenced to death less than two years later.
In 2008, seven years after his arrest, Khizar was diagnosed with schizophrenia — both by the medical officer at Central Jail Lahore and physicians at Services Hospital, but the LHC still dismissed his appeal less than a year later. The Supreme Court followed suit soon after.
It did not matter that Khizar was not of “sound mind”. It did not matter that Pakistan is a party to international conventions that prohibit the execution of a mentally ill prisoner. The state seemed adamant to hang him.
When I met Khizar at his ward in Jinnah Hospital on March 16, 2019, I saw a man defeated by the system.
The 56-year-old lay on his bed, oblivious to his surroundings, barely able to recognise his own mother. I remember looking into his eyes brimming with sadness, fruitlessly trying to console him. He was unable to utter any words, communicating through gestures — gestures that were mostly unintelligible.
I asked Khizar if he had eaten anything. He did not respond. I asked him again using a gesture. He replied in the negative.
I asked him why he hadn’t eaten and he only smiled back at me. That was his standard reply: a smile for every query. A smile that would haunt me for weeks to come.
Whenever I think of him, I remember his smile. I would have never thought that the sight of someone smiling would make me so sad.
It was a strange feeling whenever I took him from one hospital counter to another for his multiple tests, a feeling I will never forget — one of utter helplessness.
I wanted to see him in good health, but that would mean he would be declared fit to be hanged to death. I had never felt such depth of emotion as I felt when I spent time with him.
Incarceration had ruined his mental health but life in jail had not helped his physical health either. He was unable to feed, bathe or clothe himself.
It was a cruel irony that a man on death row was devoid of all life. Even if he were to gain some physical strength with the help of doctors, his psychiatric treatment had a long way to go. But Pakistani courts have no set precedent to recognise schizophrenia as a severe mental disorder.
Khizar’s mother, Iqbal Bano, stood with him throughout his ordeal, spending sleepless nights at the hospital to feed him with her own hands. It must have been terribly difficult for her to see her son slip away in front of her eyes.
But even in her grief, she remained full of grace. I could not help but admire her courage. It was a painful journey for her.
She would sometimes tell me that all she wanted was this pain and suffering to go away, and then she would pick herself up and be ready for the next battle. She persisted, despite all the odds stacked against her.
Khizar eventually passed away on March 22 this year, peacefully in his sleep. I did not know what to say to Iqbal Bano or how to comfort her. Nothing I could have said would have made the loss of her only son any less. I just prayed for his forgiveness and hoped that he was in a better place.
But I saw a certain calm in her tears. The pain and suffering of nearly two decades had finally come to an end. I remember standing beside Khizar’s body and noticing that his face, too, seemed at peace. He was in a better place.
Justice, however, was not served. Iqbal Bano’s son deserved better. He deserved treatment in a better psychiatric treatment facility. Instead, his life was haunted by the very authorities who should have protected him.
Deep down, I knew God had forgiven him. Seeing so many loved ones at his funeral late at night, walking for almost half an hour to the site of his burial, tells something about the deceased.
Standing there as he was laid to rest, I hoped Khizar did not die in vain. There are so many vulnerable prisoners barely surviving the abuse that is inherent in the system.
I hope his death will highlight the plight of all the other mentally ill prisoners languishing in Pakistan’s prisons.
And I hope that one day we will treat the poorest and most vulnerable among us with the dignity they deserve.
Are you working on prison reform in Pakistan? Share your experience with us at email@example.com