In the lurch

March 8, 2020

Kanizan Bibi, a middle-aged schizophrenic woman on death row has been in jail for 30 years. Will the execution of a mentally ill prisoner be halted?

Kanizan Bibi, a middle-aged schizophrenic woman on death row, has been languishing in various jails of the Punjab. For the last 30 years she has been waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision on her case; for the last eight months, she has been at Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, waiting for her medical evaluation report to be submitted before Supreme Court of Pakistan, which would decide if her sentence would be carried out or not.

According to relatives and people looking after Kanizan, sentenced to death for murder of six, she has not uttered a single word since she was shifted to the Punjab Institute of Mental Health (PIMH) in 2006. She has been silently sitting in a corner in jail.

Born in a poor family, Kanizan was arrested in 1989 as a juvenile and sentenced to death in 2001 as an accomplice in the murder of six, a charge she never willingly confessed to. When she was just a child, she had worked as a maid for a landlord’s family in a village near Peer Mahal, a town in central Punjab, when she was caught in a family rivalry.

According to her relatives, she was forced to confess the crime through torture used by the police authorities investigating the case. The murder of six in the house where she used to work as a maid took place in July 1989. She was named in the FIR. Trial court sentenced her and the head of the household to death in the case in 1991. She lost on every appellate forum and the president of Pakistan rejected her mercy petition in 2000. However, her death warrants were officially suspended after Kanizan was found to be suffering from schizophrenia; and later, admitted to a government hospital for psychiatric diseases in Lahore. She was transferred to the Punjab Institute of Mental Health (PIMH) in 2006. In 2015, a medical board officially declared her to be suffering from schizophrenia suggesting treatment. In 2018, Supreme Court of Pakistan took suo motu notice and ordered further clinical evaluation. Report of that evaluation is yet to be submitted before the SC.

Sher Muhammad, father of Kanizan Bibi, wrote a letter to president of Pakistan in 2016 to do justice and release her. “I’m a poor man. Kanizan is my only child. My wife died very suddenly, leaving Kanizan and me completely alone in the world. Kanizan began working as a housemaid for a rich, landowning family. She was little more than a child herself when she was charged with murder of children she was taking care of. The family implicated my daughter in this case which was the result of dispute over property. She was taken by the police for interrogation and never came back. Kanizan was 16 years old. The police recorded her age as 25. I humbly beg you to find it in your heart to grant mercy to a poor woman who has spent almost all her life in jail,” her father wrote in a letter to president of Pakistan. He passed away a few months later without hearing from the president’s office.

In 2018, the chief justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar, approved Kanizan’s transfer to a secure mental health facility ensuring her treatment and further evaluation on the consistent persuasion of Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a non-government organization working on the cases of juveniles and those suffering from mental illnesses who are on death row. The organization also takes up issues of death row prisoners’ well-being.

“During the course of her imprisonment, her medical condition has deteriorated and she has not spoken a word in the past 10 years,” a case work lawyer at JPP, Mahmood Iftikhar, tells The News on Sunday. He says despite her long history of mental illness, president of Pakistan had set aside her mercy petition. “We believe her conviction rests largely on a testimony she gave after being tortured in police custody for almost three weeks,” he says. According to her family, the abuse was so severe that she had to be admitted to a hospital at one point. She was beaten severely and electrocuted, he adds.

“Mentally-ill defendants repeatedly slip through the cracks in Pakistan’s criminal justice system. The lack of mental health treatment and training in the criminal justice system, as well as in Pakistan generally, means that many individuals never even get diagnosed. In fact, for many indigent mentally ill defendants, their first contact with a mental health professional is in jail,” Iftikhar maintains.

Pakistan has ratified a number of international human rights treaties that grant rights and special protections to persons suffering from mental illnesses. These include International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1984 adopting Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty; and consensus by the UN General Assembly adopting that “Persons below 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the crime shall not be sentenced to death, nor shall the death sentence be carried out on pregnant women, or on new mothers, or on persons who have become insane.” The Economic and Social Council in 1988 amplified this safeguard with the words “persons suffering from mental retardation or extremely limited mental competence”.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has, earlier, halted execution of prisoners who were mentally ill at the time of the death warrant such as Iqbal Bano and Noor Jehan in 2019. In 2018, the then CJP also observed that “This is beyond sense or reason that we execute mentally ill individuals”. Execution of mentally ill persons is also against Islamic principles as Islam provides several safeguards against extreme punishments for those with limited culpability due to lack of intention behind their crimes, according to many Islamic scholars. At the moment, according to government figures, there are around 600 mentally challenged inmates languishing in Pakistani jails.

JPP hopes the Pakistani government gives Kanizan justice. “We demand that the government commute Kanizan’s sentence. She has spent 30 years behind the bars, double the amount of time of life imprisonment. We also hope that the apex court will set a precedent to protect the rights of mentally ill in line with the constitution and the teachings of Islam,” Iftikhar says. The JPP is also launching a campaign to highlight the plight of Kanizan starting on International Women Day (today).


The writer is a staff member and can be reached at [email protected]

Kanizan Bibi, a schizophrenic on death row; Will the execution of a mentally-ill prisoner be halted?