Pakistan’s top court has commuted the death sentences of two mentally ill prisoners who have spent decades on death row in a landmark judgment hailed by human rights activists.
"If a condemned prisoner, due to mental illness, is found to be unable to comprehend the rationale and reason behind his/her punishment, then carrying out the death sentence will not meet the ends of justice," the country's Supreme Court ruled on February 10.
The judges asked authorities to make amendments in the relevant laws and regulations, and said exemptions from death sentence should be subject to certification by a medical board.
Ali Haider Habib, a spokesman for Justice Project Pakistan, a charity that provided legal aid to the prisoners, said he was “stoked” about the judgment that he hoped will “set a precedent for all courts while sentencing mentally ill prisoners.”
"We hope the guidelines detailed in the judgment will permeate to all levels of the judiciary and prison staff so that mental illnesses can be detected and treated instead of being ignored and denied," Habib said.
Pakistan in 2008 ratified the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities prohibiting the execution of mentally ill prisoners.
Since then, only one mentally ill prisoner was executed, in 2015, according to Justice Project Pakistan.
One of the two inmates whose death sentence was commuted on February 10 has spent 30 years on death row and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2000. Kanizan Bibi was 16 when she was charged with murdering her employer’s wife and five children. Police said she was having an affair with her employer, who was arrested and hanged.
The second prisoner on death row who had his sentence commuted was convicted of murdering a religious scholar in 2001. Imad Ali was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2008. The Supreme Court halted his execution in 2016.
In its February 10 ruling, the Supreme Court also ordered prison officials to file a new mercy petition for a third prisoner who has spent more than 15 years on death row. President Arif Alvi has the authority to pardon Ghulam Abbas.
According to Justice Project Pakistan, there are 4,225 people on death row in Pakistan, and more than 600 mentally ill prisoners are in the country’s overcrowded prisons.
The group says 515 people have been executed since Pakistan lifted a six-year moratorium on the death penalty after militants killed more than 150 people at a school in the northwestern city of Peshawar in December 2014.