Pakistan Court’s Mental Health Ruling Promises Reform

Click to expand Image

The Supreme court building is seen in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 17, 2017.
© 2017 AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

On September 21, the Pakistan Supreme Court directed a medical board to examine two death row prisoners with psychosocial disabilities, or mental health conditions, seeking expert opinion on mental health as a mitigating factor in capital punishment cases.

Ghulam Abbas and Kanizan Fatima Bibi, who had been convicted of murder, had filed for review of a 2015 Supreme Court decision that upheld their death sentences on the basis that there was insufficient evidence of their disability. The claimants and the Punjab provincial government argued that the court ignored the prisoners’ mental health condition at the time of the judgment.

Kanizan Fatima is one of the few women on death row in Pakistan. According to her lawyers, she has not spoken for 14 years and is unable to eat, drink, or take care of herself without assistance. She has been in prison for 31 years.

Ghulam Abbas has spent more than 14 years on death row. Human rights organizations have urged that his mental health condition should be comprehensively assessed. Abbas’ lawyers say that medical records show that he had received mental health medication in prison.

The Supreme Court’s decision to review its earlier ruling is an important development and presents a valuable opportunity for reform. The death penalty is inherently cruel, inhumane, and irreversible. Executing an individual with psychosocial disabilities would also violate Pakistan’s international legal obligations. The United Nations Human Rights Committee and UN special experts have determined that the execution of a person with a psychosocial disability violates the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment.

The unfairness and high risk of error present in capital prosecutions in Pakistan has been documented extensively. Executing people with psychosocial disabilities is an affront to human decency and serves no criminal justice purpose. Pakistan should strengthen its judicial institutions to prevent unjust sentencing and move towards a complete moratorium on the death penalty.