Pakistan’s Courts Need to Do More to Acknowledge Mental Illness

A woman holding a framed picture
Still image from “Bring It Back: Khizar Hayat’s Story of Death Row in Pakistan.” International law bans executing prisoners who are suffering from mental illnesses. But in Pakistan, Khizar Hayat, a person with schizophrenia, has been sentenced to death.

Iqbal Bano is 77 years old and lives by herself. Her husband died years ago. Still, every week for the last 16 years, she’s made the trip to Lahore Central Jail to visit her only son, Khizar Hayat. When she can afford it, Bano takes a rickshaw from her house to the jail. But even then, the tight security arrangements around the prison mean she must walk at least a mile to enter the premises.

Hayat, who is now 50, has been behind bars since he killed his best friend in 2001. In 2003, he was sentenced to be hanged for murder—despite being a victim of schizophrenia.

Hayat’s mental illness means he does not always recognize his mother, as he sits in his cell where invisible friends and enemies surround him. He has been separated from the rest of the prison population and is kept in solitary confinement. This is partly for his own security. Hayat has been attacked several times by fellow inmates for his outbursts, mood swings, and near constant rambling.

In January 2017, the government set Hayat’s third execution date. When his mother told him the news, he did not understand what an execution warrant was and decided to ask the walls of his cell for an explanation. It is difficult to comprehend that you are about to be hanged when your mental illness prevents you from understanding why or how you’re being punished.

Defendants who are suffering from mental illnesses often lack the criminal intent required to commit an offense. More often than not, it is their mental illness itself that ends up causing the crime in the first place.

And yet, Hayat’s story is only one among many. The exact number of prisoners suffering from mental illnesses is unknown. Owing to the lack of treatment for mental health issues and the dearth of a proper evaluation system within the criminal justice system—especially in Pakistan—many prisoners have never been diagnosed.

In 2016, the death penalty appeal of another mentally ill prisoner, Imdad Ali, exposed the flawed conception of mental illness under Pakistan’s criminal justice system, when the Supreme Court ruled that schizophrenia was “not a mental illness.” Had it not been for the national and international outcry that ensued, Ali would have been sent to the gallows without even knowing why he was being punished.

Before Ali, there was Munir Hussain. In April, 2015, Hussain became the 100th person to be executed in Pakistan after the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted some four months previously (the number of executions since then now stands at 485). According to his family, Hussain was a long-term sufferer of mental illness who had no recollection of his life before arrest or of any of his family members at the time of his hanging.

International law explicitly bans the execution of prisoners who are suffering from mental illnesses. If Pakistan were to abide by its international human rights commitments, Hayat and Ali would have undergone rehabilitative treatment—under conditions where they pose no danger to anyone—and Hussain would not have been hanged.

Hayat’s death sentence highlights the complete lack of safeguards for mentally ill prisoners in Paikstan; until the Supreme Court sets the standard for the way the law handles such cases, the executions will continue.

But the mentally ill are not the only victims of the country’s broken criminal justice system. Pakistan also executes juvenile offenders. In addition, too many defendants—including many on death row—are convicted on the basis of inadequate evidence or forced confessions. 

For all these reasons, Justice Project Pakistan has been working to reduce the scope of the death penalty in our country. By spearheading a nationwide campaign titled #BringItBack (referring to the moratorium on the death penalty), we hope to increase the public’s awareness of what the death penalty means in practice by highlighting cases of individuals such as Hayat.

We see some signs of progress. There are indications that the government is taking steps to limit the application of the death penalty, by potentially reducing the number of death-eligible crimes. But so much still remains to be done.

Justice Project Pakistan is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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