February 10th, 2021 

By Staff Reporter 


The Supreme Court on Wednesday, February 10, passed a landmark verdict on the cases of mentally-ill prisoners on death row and commuted the sentences of two inmates with severe schizophrenia while directing prison officials to file a fresh mercy petition for a third death row inmate.

The apex court has also set guidelines for federal and provincial authorities to establish mental health facilities and amend Prison Rules among other recommendations.

“The mental health of a person is as important and significant as his physical health,” said Justice Manzoor Ahmad Malik in his opening remarks, for the judgment by a five-member larger bench. “Unfortunately, it is often not given the importance and seriousness it deserves. Because of certain misconceptions, the implications of mental illnesses are overlooked, and the vulnerability or disability that it causes is not given due attention.”

The bench, comprising Justice Manzoor Ahmad Malik, Justice Sardar Tariq Masood, Justice Ijaz Ul Ahsan, Justice Mazhar Alam Miankhel, and Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, announced the verdict while hearing the cases of Kanizan Bibi, Imdad Ali, and Ghulam Abbas who all suffer from schizophrenia, and have spent 30, 19 and 15 years on death row, respectively.

No execution

In its judgment, the apex court clearly declared on Wednesday, that death row prisoners should not be executed. If they are found to be suffering from any mental illness and thus, unable to comprehend the rationale behind their execution. Setting parameters for future cases, the federal government, and each provincial government have been directed to constitute a medical board consisting of three qualified psychiatrists and two psychologists to determine the mental health of such condemned prisoners and evaluate if they qualify for an exemption to the death penalty.

‘After considering the material discussed hereinabove, we 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,’ the verdict reads.

Terms “unsoundness of mind” and “lunatic” replaced

The bench has also directed that the terms “unsoundness of mind” and “lunatic” should be replaced, wherever they occur in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), and the Prison Rules, and instead use sensitized and updated language such as “mental illness” or “mental disorder.”

Key recommendations

The Supreme Court directed the federal government and all provincial governments to immediately make necessary amendments to relevant laws and rules for mentally-ill prisoners, adding that Prison Rules should be appropriately amended in this regard. The court ordered that the federal government and all provincial governments establish High-Security Forensic Mental Health Facilities in teaching and training institutions of mental health

The apex court instructed that the federal govt and all provincial governments should immediately constitute a Medical Board, comprising qualified psychiatrists and psychologists, for the examination of all those on death row who are mentally ill. Similarly, the federal government and all provincial governments should immediately constitute a medical board, comprising qualified psychiatrists and psychologists, for examination and rehabilitation of mentally ill prisoners (under trial or convicted) referred by trial courts or jail authorities.

The Supreme Court told the federal govt and all provincial governments to immediately launch training programs and courses on forensic mental health assessment. Besides, the Federal Judicial Academy and Provincial Academies should arrange courses for trial court judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and court staff on mental illness.

A historic judgment

“This is a historic judgment that validates our decade-long struggle, to get the courts to recognize mental illness as a mitigating circumstance against the imposition of the death penalty,” says Sarah Belal, the Executive Director of Justice Project Pakistan (JPP). “We are grateful to all the honorable judges on the bench for affirming the rights of the most vulnerable prisoners through explicit recognition of domestic safeguards and international human rights principles.”   

“Those who believe that the death penalty works as a form of retributive justice must understand that no justice can take place when executing a person who does not understand the gravity of their situation,” said Ali Haider Habib, JPP spokesperson. “For Pakistan’s highest court to formalize this concept, sets a historic precedent, and removes the government from its involvement in this travesty in the name of justice – and its a most important step,” he added.

Who are Kanizan Bibi,Imdad Ali and Ghulam Abbas?

According to Jugnoo Kazmi of JPP, the petitions before the SC in connection to the four death row prisoners – Imdad Ali, Kanizan Bibi, Ghulam Abbas, and Khizar Hayat – were all suffering from prolonged mental illnesses. Khizar Hayat passed away in prison after spending 16 years on death row.

Kanizan Bibi suffered from severe schizophrenia and had spent 30 years in prison. She was arrested in 1989 as a juvenile, according to information provided by JPP, and was sentenced to death in 1991 as an accomplice in the murder of six individuals. She had always maintained her innocence. In 2006, she was shifted from Lahore Central Jail (Kot Lakhpat) to Punjab Institute of Mental Health (PIMH) where she is currently being treated for her mental illness. During the course of her incarceration, her medical condition has deteriorated to such an extent that she has not spoken a word in eight years.

Imdad Ali also suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. His medical evaluations in September and October 2016 found him to be actively suffering from psychotic symptoms while a prison psychiatrist deemed him “a treatment-resistant case”. Sentenced to death in 2002 over a shooting, Imdad has spent nearly 20 years on death row, with four years in solitary confinement in the jail hospital. His condition has only continued to worsen.

Ghulam  Abbas, 37,  was arrested in  September  2004  for fatally stabbing his neighbor in Haji Lal Din area of Rawalpindi, over a dispute over the payment of the electricity bill. He was sentenced to death by a Sessions Court in May 2006.  His subsequent  High  Court and  Supreme  Court appeals were dismissed in  2010  and 2016,  respectively. In  2018, an SC review petition was also dismissed.

Ghulam’s mercy petition was eventually rejected by President Arif Alvi on April 22, 2019. According to his medical records, he has been receiving treatment for psychiatric problems by the jail since the past year and was prescribed Risperidone, a powerful antipsychotic drug.