Insanity plea

Pledging mental illness in legal cases has long been a contentious issue

Editorial November 06, 2017

Pledging mental illness in legal cases has long been a contentious issue. Difficult to prove in even advanced legal systems. Judicial branches of government rightfully remain skeptical about criminals who put forth the mental illness argument. Similar cases in Pakistan, with its poorly developed system of law and negligible attention paid to mental health policies, should be examined even more discretely. The halting of murder convict Saleem Ahmed’s execution in Lahore is suspect owing to the lapse of more than one-and-a-half decades since the crime and the basis on which the stay orders were handed to Lahore Central Jail, pertaining to mental illness. Ahmed was charged for murder in 2001 and sentenced to death in 2004. Since the case is ongoing, we will not comment on the nature of right and wrong, but the news story provides crucial support to the fact that mental illness requires much greater regard than it is given. More attention must be paid to mental health without stereotyping and stigmatisation. If all stakeholders regarded mental health as significant as physical health and people opted for regular examinations, a record could be maintained to lend support to any claims later made in a court. The sudden plea by an advocate in defense of Ahmed’s mental ailment is curious. Even in cases of xenophobes, especially white supremacists committing domestic terrorism in the US, defenses of mental illness face greater scrutiny.

The argument of whether capital punishment should be handed to actual insanity victims is an ethical one and perhaps carries no definitive conclusion. However, in Pakistan, legalities regarding insanity pleas must be fine-tuned. This will be a multistep process whereby all stakeholders first recognise the types of mental health illnesses and develop better policies to encourage people to seek assessment by trained professionals. Finally, lawmakers can devise strict requirements for a defendant to be able to claim insanity.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2017.

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