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Experts slam victimisation of mentally challenged girl

August 19, 2012

-AFP File Photo

KARACHI: As the news of the Christian girl Rifta and her ordeal continues to make headlines, what comes to the fore is a sick picture of double victimisation of an individual, first as a religious minority and secondly as a mentally handicapped human being in a society where there is little understanding of mental illnesses.

Currently, the Down syndrome sufferer is being held in the Adiyala Jail for a judicial remand under charges of blasphemy and any progress in the case will be made only after Eid. While voices are being raised as to how a fair trial must be conducted under the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance, 2000, what is being overlooked is the need for sanity to prevail.

The Bahawalpur case where a malang was killed by over 2000 ‘sane’ people after being accused of blasphemy and the case of this girl show the apathy of our society. So far, there has been no medico-legal examination of the girl to determine her mental health.

Earlier, under 1912 Act, a person could be held for 10-30 days before an inquiry began but after the Mental Health Ordinance 2001, a mentally unstable person could not be detained for more than 72 hours and it was mandatory to carry out psychiatric evaluation within that period, an MLO working in a public hospital in Lahore said.

Till 2001, Pakistan followed the Lunacy Act 1912, the mental health law that was introduced in India, which referred to a person with mental illness as ‘idiot of unsound mind’ or ‘lunatic’. However, in 2001, things improved significantly when the Lunacy Act 1912 was repealed and replaced with the Mental Health Ordinance 2001 (MHO 2001) by Pervez Musharraf.

The ordinance offered a more humane outlook towards individuals with psychological disorders and mental handicaps and allowed them to be given a fair chance. However, after the 18th Amendment, the Federal Mental Health Authority was dissolved and MHO 2001 lapsed. So far, none of the provinces, with the exception of Sindh, has made any effort to take up this issue.

Human rights lawyer Zia Awan agreed that the 2001 ordinance would have offered a more sensible way out in this case.

“If you go by the law, then Section 82 (of) Pakistan Penal Code says that ‘nothing is an offence which is done by a child under seven’ while in Section 83, a judge can decide to ignore the age stated in Section 82, raising it to 12 years, in the case of a child who has not attained sufficient maturity of understanding,” Mr Awan explained.

“At the moment, it is important that a psychiatric evaluation is carried out to determine the extent of her mental illness. This girl might have a mental age of a 3-year-old and we have to keep this in mind when doling out a judgment,” he said.

He added that if the MHO 2001 was there, the girl would not have been sent to the jail and would rather have been sent to a ‘facility equipped to take care of her needs’.

Commenting on the situation, Dr Haroon Ahmed, president of the Pakistan Association of Mental Health, said: “There are so many loopholes in our legal system and usually it’s the innocent that gets caught. “So far, we do not have clear-cut definitions of mental illness and when it comes to legislation, mental health service providers are excluded. Currently, no laws address civil or criminal liability of a person suffering from mental illness.”

He said the Pakistani society was already stifling with the ‘mob justice mentality providing a clear reflection of this decay’. “The charges of blasphemy are very serious but how do you determine who is sane and who is not? How do you deal with a schizophrenic person who claims to be a divine entity? Do you treat him for his illness or do you ‘punish’ him?”