While the Supreme Court (SC) decision that claimed that schizophrenia was not a mental illness led to a national and international outcry, on Monday, sense prevailed and the SC stayed the execution of Imdad Ali, a schizophrenic man convicted in 2002 for murdering a cleric. The hanging was postponed on the basis of Ali’s mental illness.

International lawyers have called this decision “ground breaking” and that it is a “landmark precedent in human rights jurisprudence” in Pakistan. The issue here is not the man’s innocence, but how humanely the law treats people who have mental disorders.

The Government of Pakistan is bound by international law through the various UN Human Rights Treaties that it has ratified, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture (CAT). Unfortunately, in Pakistan we have a habit of treating our international commitments as secondary obligations, when they have as much force of law as any domestic legislation. The signing of these international laws is not by force; our state has consented to these standards. But until these international laws are complimented with local legislation, they will continue to be eyewash. Cases of mentally ill prisoners waiting to be hung are embarrassing, especially when we have signed international treaties to do the opposite.

Under the current law in Pakistan, mentally ill prisoners are not found criminally liable. However, there exists no legislative bar on executions of those suffering from mental illness. Thus, mentally ill prisoners who are unable to raise their mental condition as a defence prior to sentencing, or who develop mental illness during their time in prison, have no legal protection. The Supreme Court now has an opportunity to change that and this issue must not be allowed to fade if change has to happen.