Kanizan Bibi has sat on Pakistan’s death row for 29 years. Charged with the murder of her employer’s family in 1991, she has been subjected to torture, unhygienic detainment facilities and a lack of treatment for her schizophrenia. The Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide works to secure her freedom.
“It doesn’t serve the interest of justice, it doesn’t serve anyone’s interests at all, for her to continue to be detained when she is so severely ill,” said Delphine Lourtau, CCPDW executive director .
Bibi’s lawyers work for Justice Project Pakistan, a legal advocacy group and partner of the CCDPW. The two organizations planned to support Bibi in a hearing on March 30. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many Pakistani courts to close, leading to the hearing’s cancellation.
In the hearing, Bibi’s lawyers planned to obtain her a permanent transfer from prison to a mental health institution.
Laura Douglas, CCDPW Associate Director of Research and Training, explained that Bibi requires care that she can’t receive in prison. She believes that Bibi’s complete lack of speech could be especially dangerous for her, especially given the spread of COVID-19, as she could not express if she developed symptoms.
“She doesn’t have people who are trying to care for her and able to take measures to protect her from this virus as it starts to spread throughout prisons and jails,” Douglas said.
Douglas noted that Bibi cannot practice preventative measures due to her incarceration. Limited access to soap and water in Pakistani prisons prevents regular hand washing. Bibi cannot socially distance herself either, given the overcrowding in these facilities.
The New York Times’ coronavirus tracking map puts the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan at over 5,400. A Times article suggests that Pakistan’s healthcare facilities struggled to supply adequate resources, even before the pandemic. Prime Minister Imran Khan was reluctant to respond to the virus in its early stages.
Ninety incarcerated individuals in Pakistan have tested positive for COVID-19, according to JPP. An interactive webpage on the JPP website tracks the COVID-19 infections and the COVID-related deaths of prisoners worldwide.
“[Bibi] is one of the most vulnerable prisoners right now exposed to the increased risks posed by COVID-19,” Lourtau said.
The CCDPW takes particular interest in women on death row, calling for further research on the gendered dynamics of death penalty sentences.
“Women who are sentenced to death tend to be judged not just for the offenses for which they’re convicted, but also for the ways in which they transgress the gendered norms that they are supposed to respect,” Lourtau said.
The CCDPW, Lourtau said, often observes sexist language and attitudes in the cases they address. Courts may label women prisoners as “ungrateful daughters” or “unfaithful wives.”
In the early stages of Bibi’s trial, courts accused her of having an extra-marital affair with her employer, Khan Mohammad. According to a recent article, Mohammad denied the affair and swore Bibi’s and his own involvement in the murders.
Lourtau also acknowledged the role of mental illness in death penalty cases worldwide. International legal guidelines theoretically prohibit the execution of those with severe mental illness, but countries often fail to uphold this standard.
“You see a huge number of flaws in the application of those bans because of a lack of training, a lack of mental health experts and a lack of understanding on the part of criminal justice stakeholders of what mental health, mental illness and intellectual disability look like,” she said.
Douglas encouraged attention on the unique struggles of incarcerated people during this unprecedented time. They “have the fewest resources to protect themselves and have their lives totally controlled by the state at a time when that has become very dangerous,” she said.