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Sunday July 14, 2024

Plea of insanity

By Editorial Board
March 21, 2022

According to what figures we have available, in a country where there are far too few psychologists and psychiatrists to cater to a population of 220 million people, the data available suggests that 50 million Pakistanis suffer mental health challenges. The same is likely to be reflected in the number of persons held in jail, and there is the possibility that a larger number of mentally-ill people are incarcerated. A new report by the Justice Project Pakistan has pointed out the fate of mentally-ill prisoners and the double trial they suffer as a result of their mental condition, and physical incarceration. Although a ruling by the Supreme Court has said that a person who because of an 'unsound' mind is not able to understand why he or she is being punished should not be subjected to such penalty, this is subject to findings by a medical board and there is no real evidence that the ruling is implemented in every case.

Research has shown is that mentally ill prisoners often suffer torture of various kinds in jail, have been kept chained to their beds till the very moment of their execution, have no idea of why they are being executed, or even that they are to be hanged and are often poorly treated both by prison staff and by prisoners around them. This is an issue that needs to be dealt with. Persons with documented mental illnesses should not have to stand trial for a crime they cannot understand they committed or which was carried out solely because they were not mentally well. This falls in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There is little respect for the mentally ill in Pakistani society. In prisons, while the judgement in the Safia Bibi case has shown that there is recognition that the mentally ill should not be tried and punished in the same way as those who carry out a crime in full knowledge of what they are doing and what the consequences will be, there is still a wide variance in the carrying out of this ruling. Just recently in Mian Chunnu we saw a man lynched by a mob on alleged blasphemy accusations, even though those around him said he had no idea of what he was doing and was on heavy medication because of his mental state. The law in this case needs to be tightened and made more secure. Many of those who suffer psychological issues while in prison are not offered any treatment at all. Our overcrowded jails add to the problem. There is also the element of class disparities in all this; the rich and influential get pardoned by the families of their victims or wriggle their way out of facing the consequences of their actions while the legal representation given to those without means is so poor that they can languish on death row for well over a decade despite being obviously mentally unwell.