Stephen Fry: Pakistan’s courts must not ignore mental illness

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By Stephen Fry

Imdad Ali lives, or exists, in Pakistan. He is on death row. He may not live much longer. Indeed, he very well may die, thrashing in the hangman’s noose, as early as next Wednesday.

On October 20th, the Supreme Court of Pakistan affirmed his death sentence. The Court used some odd language. He was, they wrote in the strange words of Pakistan capital cases, “awarded a death sentence by the trial court” (much as if he had received an OBE from Her Majesty). After this, a “black warrant” was issued authorising his execution. The question posed to the court was whether his long history of paranoid schizophrenia should spare him from the gallows.

In the appeal, his lawyer asked – or “respectfully prayed” – that mercy should “very graciously be granted … in the interest of justice.” In considering this, the court asked whether Imdad could rightly be construed as being of “unsound mind.”


It is not as if Imdad’s family just made this up. Before Imdad was even born, over a half-century ago, his father Muhammad Ismail was afflicted with schizophrenia. One night, when Imdad was just two years old, Muhammad jumped in front of a train, thinking he was invincible. He wasn’t.

Some twenty years ago, as it become clear that Imdad was also becoming ill, the fruit falling close to the parental tree. His family were desperate for help, but they were also poor, so they could not afford it. Imdad became increasingly withdrawn, talking to himself, chatting with inanimate objects, and instructing the sun loudly to shine with less heat. His wife, Safia, tried unsuccessfully to get him into a mental hospital.

In 2002, his rational mind in tatters, Imdad was arrested over a shooting and subsequently sentenced to death. As any sane person must surely understand, it was not Imdad who committed murder, but his schizophrenia. It seems that the entire neighbourhood is still willing to come forward to testify that Imdad was crippled by his illness.

Most recently, it was a prison doctor who labelled Imdad ‘insane.’ A few days ago, he came agonisingly close to execution before the Supreme Court of Pakistan issued a brief stay. Unsurprisingly, the vacillation between life and death has itself taken a toll. Imdad’s mental health has only declined. Indeed, the prison had to put him in solitary confinement (itself often deemed cruel) because his manic ramblings upset the other prisoners.

Most Islamic scholars say, emphatically, that Islam would never countenance the execution of a mentally ill man such as Imdad.  We should celebrate mercy in the law wherever we may find it, and the Pakistan courts do ill service to Islam when they ignore it. They go further. They ignore decades of medical evolution and understanding.

“At this stage,” the court lectures us, “it is appropriate to ascertain what ‘schizophrenia’ is?” The court then begins along what seems a sensible course, noting that it is a “severe emotional disorder, usually of psychotic proportions, characterised by misinterpretation and retreat from reality, delusions, hallucinations, ambivalence, inappropriate affect, and withdrawn, bizarre or regressive behaviour…”

Then, ‘bizarrely’ and ‘inappropriately’, the members of the court themselves retreat from reality, indulging in what might be deemed a delusion promoted by people making a regressive misinterpretation of medical science. Quoting a case, ironically – given the number of recent conflicts between the countries – from India, the Pakistan court argues that we really should not “use the word ‘schizophrenia’ because [we] do not think any such disease exists…” To show mercy based on such an illusory illness leads to “reducing a human being into a functional non-entity…

That way madness lies (King Lear Act 3, scene 4, 17–22). The Indian case cited involves a divorce: whether a schizophrenic wife should be deemed an unfit spouse because of her illness. It is, indeed, offensive to say that such a person cannot be a fit partner in life. It is quite another thing, however, to twist that humane interpretation of the condition into the inhumane insistence that decency requires we hang a man like Imdad.

Neither I, nor any of those from Reprieve or others interested in making a plea for reasonable, informed and decent clemency in this case, have any wish to show disrespect to Pakistan’s judiciary or argue for something inconsistent with that sovereign nation’s cultural, religious, moral and legal traditions.

Quite the contrary, we are asking the Supreme Court and the people of Pakistan to recognise in this case that both the wisdom of ancient precepts and the incontestable findings of established medical science demonstrate one clear path to justice.

No one and nothing, not the memory of the victim, nor the reputation and standing of Pakistan, can gain or benefit from so cruel, unjust and unwise a killing as the hanging of this tormented and desperately ill man. We urge the Court to think again.

What you can do to help Imdad

Further information about Imdad’s case can be found on here. To sign the petition calling for Imdad’s life to be spared, click the button below.

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