PPC Section 325: Criminalisation, not Medication – Yasmeen Aftab Ali

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Pakistan Penal Code, Act XLV of 1860 applies today, in 2021, exactly as it did back when introduced by the British. One can state with reasonable assurance that the proportion of mental illnesses was way less then than now. As a direct result, the number of suicide and attempted suicide was way less then, than there are now.

SECTION 325 is a criminal law in the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860, and in effect throughout the country. It stated, “Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

The law offers no exception to this act of aggression. It does not take into consideration any exception in cases of insanity, depression, suicidal tendencies and many other psychotic disorders that can lead to suicide or attempts to commit suicide.

One must compare this law with qatl-e-amd defined in PPC 300 as follows: “Whoever, to cause death or with the intention of causing bodily injury to a person, by doing an act which in the ordinary course of nature is likely to cause death, or with the knowledge that his act is so imminently dangerous that it must in all probability cause death, causes the death of such person, is said to commit qatl-e-amd. ”

However, in Section 306, the exception is created for payment of qisas in sub clause (a) when an offender is a minor or insane.

 

PPC Section 308 further reinforces this exception by stating, “Punishment in qatl-i-amd not liable to qisas, etc.: where the offender is minor or insane, diyat shall be payable either from his property or, by such person as may be determined by the Court. Further that where at the time of committing qatl-i-amd, the offender being a minor, had attained sufficient maturity of being insane, had a lucid interval, so as to be able to realise the consequences of his act, he may also be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to [twenty-five years] s ta’zir.”

Law clearly creates exceptions, both in cases of the offender being a minor and/or insane. Why, then, refuse that exception for a person committing or wanting to commit suicide in a case of suffering from any shade of psychotic disorder?

Civilised nations around the world recognise the need to create exceptions for exceptional circumstances. The world has changed since 1860, but no efforts have been made to bring our laws in line with the needs of today. Laws are created for the citizens living within a country. It deals with public safety, rights, protection of people and so on. Laws are for the people; people are not for laws. This is an important distinction that needs to be kept in mind. Unfortunately in 2021, the text of Section 325 PPC does not fulfill this need. It refuses to acknowledge the growing pressures on people and with it, the increasing mental illnesses. A flourishing drug culture has not helped. It has added to the illness ratio. Use of various available drugs (dirty hash, cocaine, ICE, Ecstasy and so on) trigger reactions that are psychotic and thereby treated with psychotic medication. Intake of these poisons can also trigger an underlying psychotic disorder lying dormant. It may take years of therapy to even come close to treatment. In most cases, it is something that must be managed for the rest of one’s life.

These illnesses need treatment, not punishment. The focus of Section 325 must take into account the necessity to address this need, not punish those already suffering. The existing law only encourages family and friends to hide the action in fear of being prosected under law, taking away the option of getting medical treatment for such patients. Because patients they are. Practitioners claim there is already a social stigma attached with mental problems. Fear of prosecution only lends to refusing treatment to such patients as families are more likely to hide facts.

In the UK itself, the law was repealed in 1961 after the British Medical Association and the Church of England campaigned to have it removed. Two reasons are reported for this successful change in a document by Taskeen. Taskeen is is a non-profit organisation focusing on changing people’s attitudes and behaviours towards mental health and well-being in Pakistan through awareness, education, expression, and advocacy. They support that healthy minds and bodies can enable our people to lead healthy lives, leading to a healthier society for a happier Pakistan. It was co-founded by Dr Taha Sabri, a public health practitioner, and Mr Irfan Mustafa, a businessman and philanthropist. Their efforts at drawing attention of people towards the rewriting of Section 325 PPC are finally being noticed after years of struggle to get their voice heard.

Dr Sabri noted, “One of the ways in which mental illness manifests is through suicide. When the distress experienced by people suffering from mental illness becomes too intense, they may attempt to escape from this reality by taking their own lives.”

“More than 90% of suicides are due to mental illness. In Pakistan, this suicide attempt is a crime under section 325 of the Pakistan Penal Code,” he added.

He went on to say, “This results in increased suffering for those already experiencing distress, prevents getting the help that they need and discourages reporting of suicides preventing us from developing an accurate assessment of the scale of the problem.”

Dr Sabri believes that in the past 10 years he has spent in this field, he has seen the tremendous damage that this law has done. “As a result, Taskeen Health Initiative has launched a suicide decriminalization campaign in collaboration with the Pakistan Mental Health Coalition,” he claimed.

According to a report put together by Taskeen, the Council of Islamic Ideology, in 2017, and a fatwa issued by Dar-ul-Uloom Karachi, suicide is a medical issue, not a criminal one. These stances have clarified that from an Islamic point of view, suicide may be a sin, but there is no precedent for criminalisation of attempted suicide in Islam. In fact, since this law is worsening the mental health of sufferers and causing them harm, it is against Islamic principles of social justice and human welfare.

Transplanting laws from one country to another needs to keep a handle on the changing social landscape. Unfortunately, Pakistan jurists have hardly revisited the laws that serve the people. The result is, these laws fail in the process of adaptation.

Legally, provincial bills are superseded by the mother law that is Section 325 PPC. The Sindh Mental Health Act of 2013 is one example. This bill identifies suicide as a medical problem requiring psychiatric support, but families of patients are hounded by police who are bound by law {PPC 325} to criminalise the act instead of medicalizing it.

In 2017, an effort was made to address Section 325 PPC. The Senate of Pakistan passed the bill to remove the criminalisation aspect from the law.

“This bill was endorsed by the Council of Islamic Ideology, which recognized suicide and attempted suicide as a medical issue and not a religious one as these are individuals who need medical help,”said Dr Sabri. However, it could not pass muster the National Assembly due to lack of support and active opposition of some parliamentarians.

Besides UK, other nations like Iran, Qatar, the UAE and Indonesia have changed the law by removing the criminalisation aspect and focusing on the spirit of the issue, thereby paving way for treatment with compassion and understanding. It is time for Pakistan to do the same.

Ideally, Section 325 PPC must contain within, an exception to provide space to those who need treatment.

In the words of British philosopher, William Goodwin, “Law is made for man and not man for the law. Wherever we can be sure that the most valuable interests of a nation require that we should decide one way, that way we ought to decide.”