Accused’s legal counsel maintains client’s behavior in court allows for formation of medical board to ascertain his mental state
A sessions court in Islamabad on Wednesday dismissed an insanity plea filed by the defense counsel of Zahir Jaffer—the primary accused in the murder of 27-year-old Noor Mukadam—ruling that he is “normal” and was “in his senses” at the time he allegedly committed the crime.
Additional Sessions Judge Ata Rabbani announced the verdict, having reserved it earlier in the day after hearing arguments from both sides. But despite the rejection of his plea to form a medical board to determine Zahir’s mental state, defense counsel Sikandar Zulqarnain said he was “confident” that an insanity plea would benefit Zahir at a later stage of his trial.
Advocate Shah Khawar, the counsel for Noor’s family, told Newsweek that he had sought the dismissal of Zahir’s insanity plea as the accused used to counsel students at a local school and had appeared in court several times for remand and trial. The insanity plea, he stressed, had only been submitted when the trial was nearing completion and implied it might have been designed to prolong the case.
“The trial court may hear the case on day-to-day basis to conclude it in the given time in compliance with the Islamabad High Court’s order,” he said, adding that the court would not entertain any tactics that were meant to delay or complicate the case further. In October, the IHC had ordered the trial court to complete proceedings within eight weeks; the process has already been delayed several weeks.
Khawar said the court had now fixed Jan. 15 and Jan. 17 as the dates, respectively, to end prosecution evidence and cross examination.
Rejecting the impression that he had sought to prolong the proceedings, Zahir’s counsel Sikander Zulqarnain told Newsweek that he had only submitted the request for a medical board to ascertain his client’s mental state after witnessing his behavior during the trial, and “after an FIR was registered against him for hurling abuses on the honorable court and the staff.”
He recalled that Zahir had been forcefully removed from the courtroom multiple times during the trial for behavioral disorder, adding that Section 84 of the Pakistan Penal Code allowed the court to form a medical board to know the accused’s exact state of mind in this scenario.
Avoiding death penalty
According to Zulqarnain, the dismissal of the plea to form a medical board could still prove important in the future and help his client escape the death sentence. “The trial court is most likely to give death sentence to Zahir but this insanity plea will save him from gallows for sure,” he claimed. “We don’t even have to wait for the conclusion of the trial; we can appeal in the IHC even before the sentence,” he said. “When challenged in IHC or the Supreme Court, this insanity plea will turn the whole case upside down,” he added.
The defense counsel noted that the Supreme Court had already set a precedent for filing an insanity plea at any point of the proceedings. “A larger bench of the Supreme Court gave its judgement in 2021 on the timing of the plea that it’s not necessary to file [an insanity] plea at the very beginning of the case,” he said, referring to a landmark decision of February 2021 in which the apex court had ruled that prisoners with serious mental health problems could not be executed for their crimes.
“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,” read the judgment, which was hailed by rights activists as laying the groundwork for broader prison reforms.
Speaking with Newsweek, Zulqarnain also expressed dissatisfaction over the investigation process, claiming there were 110 lacunas in the case and the majority of evidence was inadmissible. “If the accused is sentenced to death by the trial court, the verdict, with the consent of Zahir’s mother, will be challenged in the Islamabad High Court or even in the Supreme Court,” he said, expressing confidence that he could secure maximum relief for Zahir.
The grisly murder of Noor in Pakistan’s federal capital on July 20 sparked outrage both locally and globally, dominating headlines. The daughter of former Pakistani diplomat Shaukat Mukadam, Noor was found beheaded at the residence of Zahir, a U.S. national and heir to the Jaffer Group of Companies. He was subsequently charged with murder and taken into police custody for further investigation.
In his complaint, Noor’s father had stated that his daughter had gone missing from their home in Islamabad on July 19. Attempts to contact her failed as her phone was shut off, he said, and a search was launched. A few hours later, he wrote in the FIR, Noor had called and informed them that she was traveling to Lahore with some friends and would return in a day or two.
The FIR said Shaukat had also received a call from Zahir, whose family were acquaintances of the ex-diplomat, and been told that Noor was not with him. At around 10 p.m. on July 20, the victim’s father received a call from the Kohsar police station, informing him that Noor had been murdered. After identifying his daughter’s body, he sought the maximum punishment under the law against Zahir for allegedly murdering his daughter.
Zahir’s parents and household staff were subsequently arrested on July 24 over allegations of “hiding evidence and being complicit in the crime.” Police later said Zahir had confessed to killing Noor, adding that his DNA and fingerprints also showed his involvement in the crime. He has since recanted this.
Following investigations, a trial court indicted Zahir along with 11 others—his parents, three household staff, and the CEO and five employees of TherapyWorks—in the case on Oct. 14. The murder trial formally began on Oct 20. On Dec. 1, the accused’s counsel filed an application seeking the constitution of a medical board to determine Zahir’s mental state, citing instances of his client acting erratically in court and contradicting his own statements.