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Mentally ill convicts

June 19, 2019

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NEWS of the stay order on the execution of 36-year-old convict Ghulam Abbas by Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa comes as a relief to many, particularly all those who have been campaigning for his right to life following reports that a Rawalpindi court had issued his death warrant. The question of why lower courts continue to do so in such cases without coordination with the superior courts remains unanswered. Ghulam Abbas has been suffering in jail for 13 long years, and has shown clear signs of having mental health issues. His condition is said to have worsened in recent months. That our jails are overflowing with mentally ill prisoners is an open secret. While the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights outlaws the execution of prisoners declared ‘insane’, there continues to be a lack of understanding of mental health issues in Pakistan, even amongst the most reasonable members of society. It was only three years ago that the Supreme Court stated that schizophrenia did not count as a legally defined mental disorder, when hearing the case of death-row prisoner Imdad Ali, before the assertion was challenged by the then Punjab government. According to experts, out of the 4,688 prisoners currently on death row, 188 are mentally ill patients in Punjab alone. Instead of getting the treatment they deserve at an appropriate facility, prisoners suffering from mental disorders are punished for what they cannot control or comprehend.

At the beginning of this year, the then chief justice Saqib Nisar had stayed the execution order for another mentally ill death-row convict and former policeman, Khizar Hayat, who was suffering from schizophrenia and psychosis. After spending 16 years of his tragic life in prison, Khizar Hayat passed away a few months later in a hospital — emaciated, a shadow of his former self. One can only hope Ghulam Abbas does not meet the same end, and is given the medical treatment and compassion he requires.

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2019