PRIME Minister David Cameron yesterday expressed “deep concern” over the treatment of a mentally ill pensioner from Scotland sentenced to death under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
Mohammed Asghar, who lived in Edinburgh for nearly 30 years before moving back to Pakistan in 2010, was convicted of blasphemy in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, last week after claiming he was the Prophet Mohammed.
The 69-year-old, who ran a chain of grocery stores in Midlothian, was treated for paranoid schizophrenia during his time in Scotland, according to his family. He made the claims in letters that were never posted, but was arrested soon after his return to Pakistan.
Amid growing pressure for the UK to intervene in his case, Mr Cameron said in answer to a question by Sheila Gilmore, Labour MP for Edinburgh East, at Prime Minister’s Questions: “I too am deeply concerned about this death sentence passed on Mr Mohammed Asghar and, as you know, it’s our longstanding policy to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances.
“But in these authorities, the Pakistani authorities can be of no doubt of the seriousness with which we view these developments.”
Ms Gilmore pointed out that judges in Mr Asghar’s case had “refused” to take his history of mental illness into account, but Mr Cameron stressed that work was ongoing behind the scenes to put pressure on Islamabad.
He added: “[Foreign Office minister] Baroness Warsi spoke to the chief minister of the Punjab on Monday, our High Commissioner in Islamabad continues to raise this case with the relevant authorities, Foreign Office officials are meeting Pakistan High Commission officials in London today to discuss his and other cases. We take this extremely seriously and we’re making that clear at every level.”
The legal charity Reprieve has said that Mr Asghar’s lawyers were able to meet him on Tuesday, describing him as being in an extremely fragile mental and physical and state. His legal team plan on filing an appeal tomorrow morning.
Maya Foa, director of Reprieve’s death penalty team, said: “We are pleased that the Prime Minister recognises the severity of Mr Asghar’s case and is giving it the attention warranted. We are extremely worried about Mr Asghar’s mental health and urge the Pakistani and UK authorities to do everything they can to ensure he gets the treatment he desperately needs.”
Meanwhile, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland has written to the Foreign Secretary to express her “deep concern” over a Pakistan court’s ruling that the death penalty should be the only punishment for anyone convicted of blasphemy.
The Rt Rev Lorna Hood has written to William Hague, as well as Wajid Shamsul Hassan, the High Commissioner of Pakistan, and external affairs minister Humza Yousaf, outlining the Kirk’s misgivings over last month’s ruling from Pakistan’s Federal Shariah Court, warning that the misuse of blasphemy legislation in the country will only increase.
In her letter to Mr Hague, Ms Hood pointed out that since 1988, half of the people charged under this law have been non-Muslims even though they make up just two per cent of the Pakistani population.
Blasphemy law is ‘weapon of extremists’ activist warns
PAKISTAN’S blasphemy law is increasingly becoming a potent weapon in the arsenal of Muslim extremists, according to one of the nation’s leading human rights activist.
Ibn Abdur Rahman warned that politicians and judges are not doing enough to counter the climate of fear being perpetrated by extremists.
He said: “There are more and more pending blasphemy cases. Extremist organisations demonstrate and raise slogans, and judges are afraid. They agitate all the time, creating hatred, and the government is not doing anything. Successive governments have failed.”
The US-based Human Rights Watch has condemned Pakistan’s record of protecting its religious minorities, warning that “abuses are rife under the country’s abusive blasphemy law, which is used against religious minorities, often to settle personal disputes”.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 34 people were charged with blasphemy last year. A government statistic says 27 were charged in 2012. At least 16 people are currently on death row for blasphemy, while another 20 are serving life sentences, according to Human Rights Watch.
Keith Davies, head of Rescue Christians, a US-based charity that started operations in Pakistan four years ago, said: “In the last three years we have seen a large increase in the number of cases of blasphemy.”
The federal religious affairs ministry refused to comment on the criticism, while government officials did not return calls.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law predates the founding of the country in 1947, but during the 1980s the US-backed military dictator, General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, amended it to add the death penalty and single out Islam as the religion that may not be insulted.