Top court notes that exemptions will only apply on prisoners who lack capacity to understand rationale for their death sentences
The Supreme Court of Pakistan on Wednesday ruled out capital punishment for any prisoner that is unable to comprehend the rationale behind their punishment due to a mental illness.
Converting the death penalties of Imdad Ali and Kanizan Bibi to life imprisonment, a five-member bench headed by Justice Manzoor Ahmad Malik directed authorities to send both of them to the Punjab Institute of Mental Health in Lahore for further treatment. The court forwarded the case of Ghulam Abbas, a third inmate on death row appealing his death sentence, to President Arif Alvi in a fresh mercy petition, noting an earlier rejection might not have factored in his mental illness.
The bench had, last month, reserved its verdict in three appeals related to mentally-ill prisoners on death row. During the proceedings, amicus curiae and advocate generals had all agreed that inmates with mental illnesses should not be executed. Of the three, Kanizan Bibi has been on death row for 30 years; Imdad Ali for 18 years; and Ghulam Abbas for 14 years.
In its ruling the top court directed authorities to amend Prison Rules to harmonize jail manuals in all provinces. It also directed both the federal and provincial governments to provide better healthcare facilities for inmates suffering from mental illnesses, adding a board comprising mental health experts should be formed to gauge the mindset of convicts on death row.
“The federal government [for Islamabad Capital Territory] and each provincial government, shall immediately constitute and notify a medical board comprising of three qualified and experienced psychiatrists and two psychologists from public sector hospitals for examination and evaluation of the condemned prisoners who are on death row and are suffering from mental illness to ensure that such mentally ill condemned prisoners … are not executed,” read the judgement.
The ruling also directed the federal and provincial governments to launch training programs and short certificate courses on forensic mental health assessment for psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, social workers, police and prison personnel. It said the Federal Judicial Academy in Islamabad, as well as provincial judicial academies, should also arrange similar courses for trial court judges, prosecutors, lawyers and court staff.
No automatic exemption
The top court clarified that not every mental illness would automatically qualify for an exemption from death sentences. “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 higher mental functions to appreciate the rationale behind the sentence of death awarded to them,” it said.
The ruling also directed provincial governments to amend relevant portions of their mental health laws, in line with World Health Organization guidance, to properly define the terms “mental illness” and “mental disorder.” It slammed the use of labels such as “unsound mind,” “lunatic,” and “insane” to describe mentally ill prisoners, noting any references to the same in the Pakistan Penal Code, the Criminal Code of Procedure and the Prison Rules should be replaced with either “mental disorder” or “mental illness.”