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Pakistan’s Top Court Commutes Death Sentences of 2 Mentally Ill Prisoners

A Pakistani walks past the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, Feb. 10, 2021.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court, in a rare verdict Wednesday, converted the death sentences of two mentally ill convicts into imprisonment for life.

The case concerned Kanizan Bibi, a middle-aged woman who has been on death row for 30 years, and Imad Ali, 55, who has spent 20 years on death row. Both suffer from “severe” schizophrenia, according to officials.

“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,” ruled the five-judge panel.

The court also directed Pakistani federal and provincial governments to immediately make necessary amendments to relevant laws and rules.

“Because of certain misconceptions, the implications of mental illness are overlooked and the vulnerability or disability that it causes is not given due attention,” Justice Manzoor Ahmad Malik stressed in his opening remarks for the judgment.

The Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a rights group that has fought the legal battle for the two inmates, hailed the court ruling. The non-governmental organization has long advocated for mentally ill prisoners to be exempted from death.

“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,” said Sarah Belal, the JPP’s executive director.

Bibi was 16 when she was charged with murdering her employer’s wife and five children. She was sentenced to death in 1991 and was diagnosed with schizophrenia nine years later in a prison in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.

Ali was sentenced to death in 2002 for killing a religious scholar. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2007 and activists say his condition has continued to worsen. In 2016, the Supreme Court intervened and halted Ali’s execution, just days before he was to be hanged.

Pakistani officials say there are at least 600 prisoners who are using mental healthcare facilities in jails across the country.

However, only two of them are on death row and said to be suffering from schizophrenia-like conditions. The JPP expects the two inmates to directly benefit from Wednesday’s court ruling.

The Supreme Court, however, said that the exemptions of the mentally ill prisoners require certification by an authorized medical board comprising mental health professionals.

Belal said the judgment will “reset the legal foundations upon which prisoners with mental illness are dealt with in the criminal justice system.”