Islamabad, Pakistan – In a landmark verdict, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has ruled that imposing the death penalty on prisoners living with a serious mental illness, particularly those who do not understand the nature of the punishment, “will not meet the ends of justice”.
The ruling was issued by the Supreme Court on Wednesday after the five-member bench had earlier reserved its verdict in the appeals of three prisoners living with mental illnesses against their convictions.
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“[W]e hold that if a condemned prisoner, due to mental illness, is found to be unable to comprehend the rationale and reason behind his/her punishment, then carrying out the death sentence will not meet the ends of justice,” reads the judgement, which effectively bans the use of the death penalty for those living with a serious mental illness.
Pakistan is one of the most prolific users of the death penalty worldwide and is home to the world’s largest recorded death row.
In 2019, there were more than 4,225 people on death row in the country, according to rights group Amnesty International’s annual report on the use of the death penalty.
Pakistan’s penal code carries the death penalty for more than 33 crimes, ranging from murder, gang rape and kidnapping to blasphemy and adultery.
In 2019, the country’s courts handed down more than 632 death sentences, which is 27.3 percent of all death sentences worldwide that year, according to Amnesty’s data.
Wednesday’s verdict was welcomed by rights groups as protecting the rights of those considered vulnerable to the misuse of the justice system.
“[Human Rights Commission of Pakistan] welcomes today’s Supreme Court judgement recognising that prisoners with a mental illness are among the most vulnerable and cannot in good conscience be executed,” said the country’s leading rights group in a statement.
Others lauded the provisions within the verdict that necessitate the updating of language in Pakistan’s penal code and further sensitisation training for jail and police authorities on the issue of mental illness.
“The judgement marks a new chapter in the jurisprudence of dealing with mentally ill prisoners. It pivots the focus from retributive justice to rehabilitative care,” said Sarah Belal, executive director of rights group Justice Project Pakistan, which represents all three prisoners in the case.
“The judgement is a landmark because it not only deliberates on specific cases but also on the infrastructure needed to improve mental healthcare in prisons while with calling for sensitised and updated language,” she told Al Jazeera.
Exemption has conditions
Wednesday’s verdict was reached after years of deliberation by the Supreme Court over the issue of prisoners living with a mental illness on death row.
In 2016, a different Supreme Court bench ruled that schizophrenia is “not a permanent mental disorder” and therefore patients did not deserve clemency under Pakistan’s criminal justice laws.
The 2021 verdict now dictates that provincial authorities must constitute boards of medical professionals to ascertain the mental health of prisoners who appeal based on mental health issues.
The Supreme Court order says not all prisoners with mental illnesses will be considered exempt from the application of the death penalty.
“[I]t is clarified that not every mental illness shall automatically qualify for an exemption from carrying out the death sentence,” reads the verdict.
“This exemption will be applicable only in that case where a Medical Board consisting of mental health professionals, certifies after a thorough examination and evaluation that the condemned prisoner no longer has the higher mental functions to appreciate the rationale and reasons behind the sentence of death awarded to him/her.”
The case was taken up around the appeals of three death row prisoners who suffer from mental illness.
Imdad Ali, 57, spent 18 years on death row after being convicted for fatally shooting a religious teacher and had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Kanizan Bibi was arrested in 1989 and sentenced to death two years later for the murder of six people, a charge she denied. She is said to suffer from severe schizophrenia, and her lawyers say she has not spoken a word out loud in decades.
Ghulam Abbas was convicted in 2006 for the murder of his neighbour in the northern city of Rawalpindi, and is also said to suffer from schizophrenia.
In Ali’s case, the court ruled that the trial judge had taken a “slipshod approach” to determining the effect of any mental illness on the case and that his court-appointed lawyer at the appeals stage had also not raised the issue. The verdict has commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment.
In Bibi’s case, too, the court commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Both Ali and Bibi are to be moved to a government-run mental health facility.
In Abbas’s case, the court did not commute his sentence but directed prison authorities to file a new presidential pardon petition explicitly mentioning his mental health condition. Abbas, too, will be moved to a government-run mental health facility.
Belal, the lawyer for the three prisoners, said the move to a mental health facility was welcome.
“Spending years in incarceration and on death row can have a profound effect on someone’s mental health, let alone someone who already has psychosocial disabilities,” she said.
“Imdad’s illness, in particular, is quite acute and will require a considerable amount of time to manage. But we are hopeful Kanizan can return home fairly soon.”
Rights group Amnesty hailed the verdict as “historic”.
“This historic precedent puts a stop to the execution of other prisoners with similar conditions, many of whom have yet to be diagnosed,” said Amnesty’s South Asia Campaigner Rimmel Mohydin.
“However, ultimately the death penalty itself must be abolished, and we urge Pakistan to re-establish an official moratorium on all executions as a first step in that direction.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.