An elderly British citizen of Pakistani descent has been convicted in a court in Rawalpindi of violating the country’s blasphemy laws. Under the nation’s draconian laws, Muhammad Asghar could potentially face the death penalty for having “insulted” Islam. After writing letters to various people, including police officers, claiming that he was the prophet himself, Asghar was arrested in 2010 in the city of Sadiqabad and has remained in prison since. Media reports suggest Ashgar is either 65 or 70 years old.
Ashgar was charged under section 295-C of the Pakistani Penal Code, which states: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” Asghar allegedly claimed to be a prophet even inside the court during his trial, Javed Gul, a government prosecutor, told Agence France-Presse.
Asghar, who is from Edinburgh, Scotland, is believed to have lived in Pakistan for several years to look after his family’s property. His attorneys claimed their client has a history of mental illness and that the court should exercise leniency. Reportedly, Asghar was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by the Royal Victoria Hospital in Edinburgh and is also partially paralyzed after suffering a stroke. However, a medical panel in Pakistan rejected claims that Asghar has mental problems.
"We are afraid that Asghar is not going to live long enough to see an appeal against his death sentence," one of Asghar's lawyers told BBC, adding that his client has already tried to kill himself in jail and may be in danger of attack from other inmates. Reprieve, a British legal charity, has asked the UK government to intervene in Asghar’s case, adding that he has had "a long and documented history of psychological ill-health" and needs care. "We can't give any information, other than we are aware of the case," The British High Commission in Pakistan told Al Jazeera.
Saba Eitizaz, a BBC correspondent in Islamabad, wrote of the Asghar drama: “This case is highly sensitive because of the strong reaction by the religious right to blasphemy cases. It is so sensitive that lawyers requested their names be withheld for security reasons.” Eitizaz added that the court is under pressure from “religious extremists” who have been seen in mobs outside the courthouse.
Ironically, Asghar is being held in the same prison facility as Mumtaz Qadri, the man who assassinated the former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer for criticizing the country's blasphemy laws. (Qadri is a hero to many conservative Pakistanis).
Asghar’s attorneys will file an appeal. BBC noted that in Pakistan higher courts often overturn convictions in blasphemy cases delivered in lower courts, usually citing the presentation of flimsy evidence. Even if his verdict is not overturned, Asghar is not in danger of execution since the state has observed an unofficial moratorium on capital punishment since 2008.
But courts in Pakistan have convicted hundreds of people on charges of blasphemy, effectively sending them to prison for life. The blasphemy laws in Pakistan – which are believed to be the strictest in the Muslim world – are a relatively recent phenomenon. When General Zia al-Haq seized power in 1979, he sought to gain support among religious radicals (as well as the conservative middle-class) by accelerating the pace of Islamization and the introduction of Sharia laws).
However, what specifically constitutes “blasphemy” can be subject to broad interpretation and therein lay many problems. Hundreds of Pakistanis are currently languishing in prisons for allegedly violating the blasphemy laws – many are religious minorities, others were likely the victims of trumped up charges. “[The blasphemy law] was designed as an instrument of persecution,” said Ali Hasan Dayan, of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Pakistan. “It's discriminatory and abusive.”
The case of Asia Bibi, a Christian, is especially tragic as she is an illiterate mother of five and is the first Pakistani woman ever sentenced to hang for violating the blasphemy law. Even if she is freed (an unlikely event), she has been threatened with death. One cleric has even placed a bounty on her head of 500,000 Pakistani rupees. Bibi denies the blasphemy charge and claims she was falsely accused by other villagers in order to settle an old score. The Bibi case even attracted the attention of former Pope Benedict XVI, who has urged her release and the abolition of the blasphemy law.
“Asia Bibi has suffered greatly and should never have been put behind bars,” said HRW's Hasan. “The injustice and fear the blasphemy law spawns will only cease when this heinous law is repealed. It's an obscene law. Essentially the blasphemy law is used as a tool of persecution and to settle other scores that are nothing to do with religion. It makes religious minorities particularly vulnerable because it's often used against them.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.