Mental illness and the death penalty

by Patrick Corrigan on October 10, 2014

Iranian soldiers watch a man being hanged in Shiraz, south of Tehran © AFP/Getty Images Iranian soldiers watch a man being hanged in Shiraz, south of Tehran © AFP/Getty Images

This winter will mark 53 years since the last use of capital punishment in Northern Ireland. On 20 December 1961 Robert McGladdery became the last man to be hanged in Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol, for the murder of Pearl Gamble. The death penalty for murder was finally abolished in Northern Ireland on 25 July 1973.

However, depending on where you live, you can be beheaded for charges of sorcery, stoned for adultery, or hanged for drug smuggling. This is 2014, and the death penalty is still very much alive. Amnesty International’s annual death penalty report notes progress is being made in that, since 1991, the number of countries abolishing capital punishment has doubled, from 48 to 97.

But despite its fall in use, at least 3,357 people have been executed around the world in the last five years – not including thousands in China, where the execution record is a state secret.

Execution is the ultimate, irrevocable punishment, and the risk of executing an innocent person can never be eliminated. Since 1976, 143 US death row prisoners have been completely exonerated for their crimes. They were found innocent for a wide range of reasons: new DNA evidence, falsified witness statements, or even misconduct by prosecutors.

In countries like Iraq and Iran, the death penalty often follows convictions relying on forced ‘confessions’ extracted through torture. We have reliable information that prisoners sent to Iraq’s death row were beaten with cables and subjected to electric shocks. Any country that deals in torture before deciding to execute has almost certainly executed the innocent.

You’re more likely to be executed if you’re a member of a minority group within a country that executes. The death penalty disproportionately affects racial, ethnic and religious minorities, and those living in poverty.

It also badly affects those with mental health problems.

Today marks the 12th annual World Day Against the Death Penalty. Campaigners around the world are focusing their efforts this year on people with mental health problems who are on death row facing execution.

Last month, 70-year-old former Edinburgh resident Mohammad Asghar, who is on death row in Pakistan, was shot and wounded by a prison guard. The fact that his attacker was apparently a prison guard, the very person who should be providing protection, indicates that even on death row, someone accused of blasphemy is not safe from vigilante violence.

However, the question remains why he is on death row at all. A doctor in Edinburgh diagnosed Mr Asghar with paranoid schizophrenia in 2010 and he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Shortly after this, he moved to Pakistan where his family believe a dispute with a tenant led to him being convicted of blasphemy in 2014 and sentenced to death.

His crime? Writing letters in which he claimed to be the Prophet Mohammed. Blasphemy carries a potential death sentence under Pakistan law.

International standards state that the death penalty must not be imposed against people with mental illness. Despite his diagnosis in Scotland, the Court ruled that Mohammad Asghar was sane.

The fact that this paranoid schizophrenic man is on death row shows the scale of the global challenge which remains both in improving understanding of mental illness and of eradicating the use of capital punishment.

This case reflects a much wider pattern worldwide, including in Northern Ireland, – that prisons are de facto becoming the mental institutions of the 21st century.

As The Detail has reported, in 2011 the NI Assembly Health Committee was told “that of 5,000 prisoners treated in jail over the course of a year, some 1,000 would have a personality disorder, 130 a psychosis, 750 a neurosis, 712 an addiction, and that a further 12 prisoners would have attempted suicide in the previous seven days.”

There’s more information on the campaign to abolish the death penalty worldwide here.

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