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Defending the mentally ill

A YEAR ago, I stood in front of a five-member bench of the Supreme Court and witnessed it pass a landmark judgement which changed the course of legal justice in Pakistan. For several months prior to this moment, I had visited the court frequently, litigated my case the best I could, and finally, my team and I won. Despite the whirlwind of emotions that accompanied the journey to the final verdict, we knew that if it went in our favour, we would be making history. This judgement had the potential to be front-page news. And it was.

The historic judgement passed that day barred the execution of individuals who are severely mentally ill and set key safeguards for mentally ill defendants on death row. The ‘Safia Bano’ judgement established that it is unlawful to execute a person with mental illness, who is unable to understand the reason for their execution. The court held that such executions would ‘not meet the ends of justice’. The judgement commuted the death sentences of two death row prisoners, Kanizan Bibi and Imdad Ali, who both suffer from schizophrenia.

Speaking to their families after each hearing was heart-wrenching, as they waited eagerly for updates on their loved ones and asked when they would be released. I had no answers and nothing to comfort them with. Kanizan Bibi was arrested as a juvenile and sentenced to death in 1991. She was brutally tortured in police custody and a confession was extracted. During her 30-year-long incarceration, she developed schizophrenia and her medical condition deteriorated so much that she did not utter a word for decades.

Imdad Ali suffered for more than 18 years on death row, while being repeatedly diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The first time I met Imdad in the psychiatric ward of Adiala Jail, he behaved like a child. The first time he spoke to me, he said “Mein sooraj mukhi hoon, aur meri biwi chand hay.” (I am a sunflower and my wife is the moon.) Whenever I prepared for the case, I would hear his innocent voice telling me this funny little sentence and I would remember that he had no clue why he was at fault, why he was alone in a cell, or if he would ever go home.

Mentally ill prisoners often remain undiagnosed.

Justice Project Pakistan’s latest report, Trapped Inside: Mental Illness and Incarceration, highlights that mentally ill defendants often remain undiagnosed, are unable to adequately participate in their defence, and are sentenced harshly as trial courts remain unaware of the legal frameworks that exist to protect them. The mentally ill are among the most vulnerable groups of individuals in our society. How can justice be truly served to those that need it the most?

The directives given by the Supreme Court include the establishment of medical boards and mental health facilities for the assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners. The apex court also asked that training programmes on forensic mental health assessments for social workers, police and prison personnel be instituted. These directives are unprecedented, and mark the importance of recognising the needs of the mentally ill in legal justice. By making this decision, the Supreme Court has taken a crucial first step towards ensuring the safety of mentally ill prisoners through every stage of the judicial process.

This judgement has been hailed by experts the world over, and the UN issued a statement welcoming the decision by Pakistan’s apex court to ban the execution of mentally ill prisoners. Experts called on the governments and judiciaries of other states, which continue to execute individuals with psychosocial disabilities, to follow the example set by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

It is important to keep in mind that Pakistan’s healthcare system gives little to no support to those suffering from mental illnesses, and the stigma attached to them remains fixed. Unfortunately, most destitute prisoners first come into contact with mental health professionals in prison. This is why the criminal justice system must be improved, so that those most in need can be helped rather than punished.

Now that these initiatives have been laid out, we must look towards the future. This is just the beginning of the hard work we still have to do for the betterment of a vulnerable population that remains incarcerated through little fault of their own. These directives are a stepping stone for us to dismantle the systemic flaws that allow vulnerable populations to be incarcerated at a much higher rate. Many still face wrongful convictions and are languishing in the prison system because of lack of due process and protocols. I hope that the ‘Safia Bano’ judgement helps all existing and future prisoners with psycho-social disabilities, and that they are protected to the full extent of the law.

Zainab Mahboob, "Defending the mentally ill," Dawn. 2022-03-17.
Keywords: Law , Law and ethics , Law Enforcement , Law reform , Law making , Justice system , Legal justice , Medical science , Health issues , Health care , Mental ill