The Supreme Court has been known to make outlandish statements before; but the recent one on mental disease has been one of its most ignorant. While deciding an appeal for the delay in execution of a paranoid Schizophrenic, the court ruled that “schizophrenia is not a permanent mental disorder; rather it is an imbalance which can increase or decrease depending on the level of stress”, and hence the execution cannot be stayed.

Not only did the apex court show a complete misunderstanding of schizophrenia – a disease commonly regarded as the one of the most debilitating mental disorders – the statement completely disregards national and international health laws and belittles the struggles of people battling the disease by collating it with “stress”.

While the outrage – both national and international – is merited, it is also taken a little out of context. The court did not decide to hang a schizophrenic, nor did it say that the disease could not be used as a defence in future crimes. Pakistan’s statute law is clear on the matter and the court cannot reverse it even if it wanted too; ‘only those who are aware of their actions can be judged and considered responsible for their actions’.

The facts of the case are unique. Imdad Ali, from Burewala district of southern Punjab, was awarded the death sentence in 2002 in a murder case. His sentence was upheld by all superior courts, including the Supreme Court. The president has also rejected his mercy petition. Imdad developed the disorder after being put on death row, and the plaintiff in the case, his wife, seeks not to reverse the death penalty, but to delay the execution so that Imdad may draw up a will.

The decision dismisses that appeal, nothing else.

However, the Supreme Court must be surely aware that its statements are cited as authorities in all lower courts, and hence it is its responsibility to pass carefully worded and meticulously researched judgments. The apex court’s callous and dismissive attitude about mental disorders will make getting reprieve for similar cases all the more difficult – if paranoid schizophrenia does not fall under ‘lunacy’ for the law’s purposes, then precious little will.

It must be remembered that this is the same court that said that a large proportion of Pakistani prisoners suffer from mental illness and they “cannot let everyone go.” These are the words of irritable jail warden, not those of a learned judge of the country’s highest court – a fact that is made all the more regrettable that the honourable Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali headed the bench behind this unfortunately worded decision.