Schizophrenia builds an entire world that exists only inside your head. It can often be a dangerous place. Voices echo over each other, often telling you to hurt yourself, or the invisible enemies around you. They can make you believe that the worst thing that could ever happen to you is always just around the corner.
Sometimes, you start to rationalise the incompatibility of your thoughts and the real world with ludicrous observations. Khizar Hayat believes that the world is coming to an end because the Americans landed on the moon, and the moon is now having a dire effect on the world. He believes that the solutions to the world’s problems are to be found in the toilet in his cell, through its special connection to the Earth.
His mental illness is often so severe that Khizar is unable to take care of his physical condition, often dressing in filthy clothes, disrobing completely, or throwing food out of his cell. He struggles to recognise his aging mother who, despite severely problematic knees, still treks to the jail nearly every week to visit her only son.
When schizophrenia is as clearly manifested as it is in Khizar’s case, the only place he belongs to is a secure mental hospital. Instead, Khizar languishes in Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore.
Khizar was sentenced to death in 2003 for fatally shooting his best friend. His mother has often said that the victim was like a brother to Khizar. A former policeman himself, Khizar was described as someone who was “kind” but “slow.”
In 2008, Khizar was diagnosed with schizophrenia by the jail authorities and since then, anyone who has observed him or come into contact with him has upheld this diagnosis. And unfortunately, Khizar is now exhibiting signs of treatment-resistant schizophrenia.
Prisons in Pakistan are well beyond capacity, with twice as many prisoners in cells as they are meant to hold. Khizar’s disease makes him loud, disruptive and often the target of abuse and attacks by frustrated fellow prisoners. On one occasion he was beaten so badly that jail authorities pre-emptively ordered an autopsy for him.
Jail authorities are ill-equipped to take care of the dangers posed to him, and so they have put him in solitary confinement. This is the worst possible treatment for treatment-resistant schizophrenics like Khizar because now he is alone with his voices. It is the opposite of the treatment he needs.
And yet, in January 2017, the government of Pakistan set Khizar’s third execution date. When his mother told him that a black warrant had been issued for him, he asked her what a warrant was. When she tried telling him he would be marching to the gallows soon, he asked the walls of his cell to do a better job of explaining this to him.
The kind of justice that metes out so final a punishment to someone who does not understand that they are even in jail is no justice at all.
The criminal culpability of mentally ill defendants should not be a matter of debate. Like any other physical disease, this must be treated with as much due attention and care. But above all, it must be recognised that mentally ill defendants lack the criminal intent required to commit an offence.
However, the exact number of death row prisoners suffering from mental illness is not known but we do know that execution warrants have been issued multiple times for some of them. For Imdad Ali, another schizophrenic death row prisoner, execution warrants were issued three times. Last year, Muhammad Saleem, a prisoner who has been on antipsychotic drugs for years also came within inches of his hanging.
While these executions have been temporarily halted, mentally ill defendants repeatedly slip through the cracks in Pakistan’s criminal justice system. And in a country like Pakistan, where there is a severe dearth of mental health treatment, proper evaluation mechanisms under the criminal justice system, many are only ever diagnosed when they come into contact with a medical officer in jail.
The Supreme Court itself is cognizant of this, with Hon Justice Umar Ata Bandial stating in May last year, that it would “be unfair to punish the mentally ill.” Hon Chief Justice Saqib Nisar in 2016 rightly pointed out that mental health laws must be tightened to offer protection. “The courts will always support you,” he told a room full of psychiatrists, ready to lend their expertise in developing a proper system evaluation of offenders with mental illnesses.
But recognition must now give way to action. The mentally ill cannot control their disease; their disease controls them. And this vulnerability must only strengthen the legal safeguards to protect them when their own mind won’t.
The writer is the head of communications at Justice Project Pakistan.