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December 5, 2016

Mental illness and the death row


December 5, 2016

In 2004, a Brazilian man from a wealthy family was arrested for drug-smuggling in Indonesia. Rodrigo Gularte was sentenced to death. Reports indicate that, until the end, Rodrigo heard voices and talked to the walls.

Up until a few minutes before his execution by firing squad, he was unaware of his impending death. The priest visiting him said he tried to make him understand his situation for over an hour, but to little avail.

Rodrigo was not simply acting out on the eve of his execution. He was exhibiting paranoid schizophrenia, a condition he had been diagnosed with while in jail but had presumably been dealing with all his life. Family and friends described strong mood swings, coupled with reckless habits and drug use. Like most schizophrenics, Rodrigo refused medication for much of his adult life.    

There are similar cases where largely poor defendants with mental health conditions come from situations where they are undiagnosed. Many of these defendants’ first interactions with a psychiatrist are in a prison setting. Lack of information or stigma surrounding certain illnesses make it difficult for defendants to explain their condition to their lawyers, or even their families. Prison authorities usually end up gathering this information and presenting it to court.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights urges states to not impose the death penalty nor execute those suffering from “any mental or intellectual disability”. The 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities calls for “Reasonable accommodation” for persons with disabilities extending to “appropriate training” being provided to administrators of justice.

Pakistan has ratified these conventions but local laws remain disconnected. In October 2016, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that schizophrenia is “not a permanent mental disorder” and is a “recoverable disease” in the case of Imdad Ali, a man convicted of killing a cleric.

Government doctors had diagnosed Imdad with schizophrenia after he was convicted in 2012. But on October 31, 2016 the Supreme Court stayed his execution on the basis of his mental illness. His lawyers and doctors said he suffered from delusions, rendering him unable to comprehend the nature of his crime and punishment.

Methods of establishing a mentally ill individual’s guilt are often murky and hotly debated. In Imdad’s case the Supreme Court of Pakistan took a cue from the Indian Supreme Court case of Amrit Bhushan Gupta. The court argued “Insanity...must be such as to disable an accused person from knowing the character of the act he was committing when he commits a criminal act.”

This argument comes from the M’Naghten Rule, a test for criminal insanity established in England in 1843. Other tests that came afterwards include volitional insanity, where the accused was aware of what they were doing, but their mental health condition was so severe or debilitating that they were unable to “conform their actions to law”.

The methods of establishing culpability vary, but in most cases in court, there are many nuances and uncertain barometers. Some argue that poor prison conditions can also worsen the mental and physical health of the individual, affecting their ability to defend themselves.

Khizar Hayat, a former police officer who murdered a fellow officer in 2003 has spent over 18 years on death row. Since then, his delusions and paranoia have grown worse.

Like Imdad, Khizar suffers from schizophrenia. During his 18 years on death row he has made various claims – such as: his mother was the Pharaoh’s Queen and the world was ending because the Americans landed on the moon.

Imdad Ali’s family says he used to say he controls the world. Reportedly, Rodrigo kept saying he would be resurrected after his death. In all these cases, the prisoners suffered from delusions and were unable to understand their circumstances.

As mandated by international conventions, “reasonable accommodation” must be made for cases involving prisoners with mental illnesses. Ultimately, it is up to the Supreme Court to look at Imdad and Khizar’s cases equally, while taking into account the seriousness of their conditions.

The writer is a freelance contributor.



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