THINK of the pain of watching a sick parent suffer in a dirty, under-staffed hospital or a neglectful care home, then think of the pain of Mohammad Asghar’s children. For more than four years, Jasmine Rana and her siblings have had to stand helplessly on the sidelines as their pensioner father – a paranoid schizophrenic who suffers from delusions – has languished in jail in Pakistan, thousands of miles away from their Scottish home, accused of that most outdated and emotive of crimes: blasphemy.
Told not to discuss the case publicly, they kept schtum even though they knew the offence carried the death penalty and saw no signs of the UK government lifting a finger to help get him out. Their anguish was compounded in January when he was convicted and moved to death row and again last month when he was shot in the back by a prison guard. To make matters worse, news of his transfer to a particular hospital was leaked, raising fears some other vigilante would try to mete out summary justice, when what the 70-year-old needs is medication and mercy.
No wonder the family have finally broken their silence; and yet – looking at the febrile atmosphere in Pakistan – you have to wonder what good the 70,000-strong petition they handed in to Downing Street last week will do. David Cameron may have described Asghar’s treatment as “appalling”, and Alex Salmond may be pushing for a prisoner transfer agreement, but in a country where merely repeating the charge in court can be considered a fresh offence, what can they realistically achieve?
Living in Scotland where no-one has been prosecuted for blasphemy since 1843 (when Thomas Paterson was jailed for 15 months for selling sacrilegious books) and no-one sentenced to death for it since 1697 (when student Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for saying theology was “a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense”) it is hard to understand why this could not have been fixed by a couple of calls. But, though no-one has been executed for it since 2008, blasphemy combines a powerful cocktail of components – religion, superstition, politics and violence – which make it difficult to discuss, never mind act on, in Pakistan.
In the past year the number of cases has soared. It is being used to persecute minorities, institute land grabs and settle scores, all under the guise of protecting the Prophet Mohammed from insult. Cases have included a teacher accused after making a mistake while copying out a homework exercise, an 11-year-old girl with Down’s Syndrome falsely accused of burning pages from a religious text book; and a Christian mother Asia Bibi accused after supposedly drinking water from a Muslim well. After the teacher’s mistake was discovered, a mob burned her school down; Bibi’s daughters were subjected to horrific abuse; and, though the 11-year-old was cleared when witnesses testified she had been framed, she had to flee to Canada to escape lynch mobs.
Those who try to inject a degree of sanity into proceedings risk paying a high price. Justice Arif Bhatti was killed in his office in 1997, two years after acquitting two Christians accused of blasphemy. Two politicians who supported Bibi were assassinated and the judge who handed down the death penalty to one of the killers fled Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, many of the accused cannot find any lawyer willing to defend them.
Asghar’s problems began when he became involved in a dispute with one of his tenants, who reported him for writing letters in which he claimed to be the Prophet Mohammed, which is the kind of delusion associated with schizophrenia. No medical evidence was taken at his trial and calls for his release have fallen on deaf ears. When Rana last saw him, he seemed confused and unaware of his precarious circumstances.
His family have met Mohammad Sarwar, now governor of the Punjab, but for anyone wondering why he hasn’t been more vocal, it is worth noting that one of his forerunners in the post was Saleem Taseer, one of the politicians who supported Bibi. He was murdered by his security guard Mumtaz Qadri.
Back home, the government has a different agenda; as the family’s lawyer Aamer Anwar has pointed out, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has to balance the importance of the case against security issues and intelligence gathering. It may be concerned about Asghar’s welfare, but it doesn’t really want to rock the boat.
In the meantime, Asghar’s health is fading and the UK and Scottish Governments seem at odds over the prospect of a prisoner transfer agreement (Cameron said transfers had been suspended after Pakistan released prisoners who had been handed over, but Salmond insists this isn’t true).
In the 21st century, jailing someone for profanity or irreverence is abhorrent enough; to do it to someone suffering from a mental illness, and then to deprive them of treatment, is barbaric. Neither Rana, nor the charity Reprieve, nor Asghar’s lawyer, nor the celebrities campaigning on his behalf believe he will last very long when he is moved back into the prison system from hospital, certainly not long enough for his appeal to be heard.
The situation is not straightforward; the Pakistani government doesn’t like outsiders meddling in its business and the UK government needs to maintain good relations. But if ever there was a case for both intervention and clemency, this is surely it. «