“Did you ever see what all the world did to me, my beloved Lord?
The landlord is corrupt and the police state oppresses me
I do not seek to become a Shah, O Truthful Lord!
I merely seek respect”
– Syed Abdullah Shah Qadri (Baba Bulleh Shah)
Like the lone myna that coos incessantly, perched atop tangled electrical cables, Imdad too has little time or concern for the mundane temporal world he finds himself surrounded by.
The towering flags that flutter atop Rawalpindi’s Central Jail, where Imdad’s mind and body were once chained, signify his dominion, he says, as he declaims with considerable passion/certainty that Jinnah himself had paid him a few visits in his shoddy prison quarters — quarters that cannot contain his unbound mind. Most of his speech revolves around the criminal justice system that had him squarely in its crosshairs for almost two decades.
Imdad was serving a sentence for his 2001 murder of a fellow resident of the south of Punjab. The shot was fired three years after Imdad had returned from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, having enjoyed modest success as a carpet salesman. Born into abject poverty, Imdad’s time in Saudi Arabia went reasonably well, until it didn’t.
From earning an honest living to a needless run-in with his kafeel and one four hour flight later, he was back in Vehari, but Vehari was not the same and neither was Imdad.
The schizophrenia reared its ugly head as he acclimated to life in Punjab’s arid hinterland. The monologues never could become dialogues for Imdad had little time for the tedium of everyday life. In 2001, with his illness having taken a serious toll on his mental health, Imdad pulled the trigger.
Soon after, local police in Vehari district’s Burewala apprehended him, and in uncharacteristic swiftness, an Additional Sessions Judge sentenced him to death. Higher courts upheld his sentence at various steps of the due legal process, but as a certified ‘treatment-resistant’ patient, Imdad’s condition only grew worse. His condition and the side effects of heavy doses of Risperidone and Kempro meant that he was seen as a nuisance by other prisoners, often resulting in assault from his fellow inmates to add to his woes.
Medical reports going as far back as 2012 show that licensed mental health professionals at Multan’s Nishtar Hospital had concluded that Imdad’s was a genuine case of paranoid schizophrenia. As the circuitous legal process played out, Imdad was transferred between at least 3 separate jails in Punjab, with the patient often relegated to the prison’s ill equipped medical annex.
Schizophrenia is not like other illnesses. Jargon-heavy academic literature, written by theorists with long drawn out titles and honorifics, debates whether it is even ‘real’, whether the symptoms can even be classed as ‘genuine’ ailments. A slippery slope for a patient that is already on thin ice. Slipping in and out of reality leaves you with little time or cognizance for either side and for 16 years Imdad’s reality was the ramshackle criminal justice system of Pakistan.
In October 2016, a Supreme Court bench headed by then Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali ruled that schizophrenia was a curable disease which does not rule out a convict from being sent to the gallows. Whether this reflected a pitiful lack of understanding of schizophrenia or populist pandering is a topic for another time, but Imdad’s case dragged on relentlessly. It was not until Chief Justice Nisar ruled in early 2018, that Imdad’s death sentence was suspended. His was a judgment that took established judicial protocols, treaty obligations and common sense into account.
Regardless, the 16 years Imdad spent on death row will never come back. His state has gotten worse under the weight of his illness, reckless mental torture and decr epit jail hospital conditions. Like the Punjab Prisons before it, the Punjab Institute of Mental Health may not be able to treat Imdad.
To be afflicted with schizophrenia is bad enough, to suffer from it inside a Pakistani prison as a death row inmate is palpably worse. It is a travesty that the Pakistani state abandons its most vulnerable subjects.