This week, a medical board confirmed that Saleem Ahmad, a prisoner on death row for 14 years, has chronic schizophrenia.
Ahmad, 50, had been scheduled to be executed in November 2017, but a court suspended his execution and ordered a medical board to assess his mental health. Ahmad – who was convicted of murder – has been in prison for more than 17 years.
This is a scathing indictment of Pakistan’s criminal justice system and should be used as an opportunity for reform. While the death penalty is inherently cruel and should be abolished, executing an individual with psychosocial disabilities violates Pakistan’s international legal obligations. The United Nations Human Rights Committee and UN special experts have determined that the execution of a person with a psychosocial disability violates the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment.
Ahmad is one of many prisoners with psychosocial disabilities on death row. In April, the Supreme Court of Pakistan reviewed the death sentences of Kaniz Fatima and Imdad Ali, death row convicts with psychosocial disabilities. During the proceedings, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court remarked: “Neither reason nor sensibility allow me to believe that we can execute a mentally ill or disabled person.” Kaniz Fatima and Imdad Ali remain on death row.
Kaniz Fatima is one of the few women on death row in Pakistan. According to her lawyers, she has not spoken for 12 years and is unable to eat, drink, or take care of herself without assistance. She has been in prison for 29 years.
She is among more than 8,000 prisoners on death row in Pakistan – one of the world’s largest populations of prisoners facing executions. Pakistani law mandates capital punishment for 28 offenses, including murder, rape, treason, and blasphemy.
The arbitrariness, unfairness, and high risk of error in capital prosecutions in Pakistan has been documented extensively. The death penalty is inherently cruel – but even more so for those who may not recognize their crimes. It good to see Pakistani authorities beginning to realize executing people with psychosocial disabilities is an affront to human decency and serves no criminal justice purpose. Pakistan should strengthen its justice system and work towards a complete moratorium on death sentences, rather than sending people like Saleem Ahmad to the gallows.