Fears blasphemy grocer ‘will be murdered in cell’

An earlier protest indicates how controversial the issue of blasphemy is in Pakistan. Picture: Getty
An earlier protest indicates how controversial the issue of blasphemy is in Pakistan. Picture: Getty
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Lawyers fighting to save a mentally-ill Edinburgh grandfather sentenced to death in Pakistan for committing blasphemy fear he could be murdered in prison.

One of 68-year-old Muhammad Asghar’s fellow inmates in prison is a murderer who killed one of the country’s leading politicians for daring to defend a woman accused of blasphemy.

His lawyers fear that Mr Asghar will be attacked – or attempt suicide – before there is any chance of his death sentence being carried out.

The grocer from Leith was condemned to death by a court in Rawalpindi on Thursday despite concerns about his mental health.

The court was not told of warnings from a leading Edinburgh psychiatrist that Mr Asghar has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and has previously experienced delusions that he is a “holy man” before it passed sentence, his legal team said today.

Mr Asghar, who lived in the Capital for more than 30 years after arriving in the 1970s, was a regular attendee at the city’s Annandale Mosque.

Four months before his arrest in 2010, Mr Asghar spent a month in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Craigleith where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and found to be suicidal.

He moved to Pakistan, where he owns property, shortly after his release.

He was found guilty of blasphemy having written letters – which he never posted – that he had signed as “prophet” Muhammad.

His legal team argued for leniency, claiming he has a history of mental illness, but their evidence was not presented to the court.

A family friend who knew Mr Asghar in Leith said: “He was a good guy, I’d seen him around since the 1970s. He became very religious, but he suffered two strokes and after that his mental health deteriorated.

“Lots of people knew him, but in Islamic communities – especially Muslim communities – blasphemy is a very sensitive issue.”

A spokesman for his legal team, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, said their client was at serious risk of attack from other inmates as well as harming himself.

The spokesman said: “During his incarceration he tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose and was admitted to hospital for ten days.

“Our biggest concern right now is his safety, he could try to harm himself or be attacked by other prisoners.

“We want some assurances of him being moved to a different cell – he shares with five other people and has not been placed on suicide watch.

“He is being kept in the same jail as the murderer of Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab, who was murdered because he came to the defence of a woman who had been accused of blasphemy.

“That gives you an idea of what he is facing.”

To date, no-one found guilty of blasphemy in Pakistan has been put to death, but convicts usually spend many years languishing in prison while their appeals are heard.

The lawyers for Mr Asghar, who were removed from his case last year by the authorities, said the state-appointed representatives had failed their client. “The state counsel never presented the medical evidence we had, and he did not present any witnesses in defence of our client,” the spokesman said.

Mr Asghar’s legal team at the human rights organisation Reprieve obtained information confirming his mental and physical ill health, including his NHS records and an affidavit signed by Dr Jane McLennan, a senior consultant at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

According to the charity, Mr Asghar had displayed evidence of ill-health throughout the trial, becoming extremely agitated during visits by lawyers and suffering from delusions.

Mr Asghar is understood to have returned to Pakistan because social workers in Edinburgh were urging him to take medication needed for his mental condition – but he refused to do so.

On arriving in Pakistan, he found someone illegally squatting in a property which he owned.

He was arrested in 2010 after writing letters to a lawyer and politician which he signed as a prophet and used his own name Muhammad.

Though Asghar did not post the letters, the disgruntled tenant whom he was in the process of evicting took them to police, the law firm said.

The spokesman said: “Mr Asghar went to do his pilgrimage to the Hajj and when he got back he was arrested on accusations of blasphemy.

“The claimant had found these letters and held on to them for 45 days before approaching police. These were private musings which he has admitted to writing himself, but he never posted them.”

The spokesman explained that the case had to be heard from prison rather than the court because of fears Mr Asghar could be attacked by fundamentalists.

A British doctor, 72-year-old Masood Ahmad, is also in prison in Pakistan, charged with blasphemy after a mullah used a mobile telephone to covertly record a conversation with him in his dispensary.

A 2008 moratorium on capital punishment in Pakistan remains in place. But the law firm representing Mr Asghar fear even if he is not put to death, he will not live long enough to see the sentence overturned.

The spokesman said: “We’re talking about an elderly man who has already suffered a major stroke and has severe mental issues in a third world country.”

In 2010, Mr Asghar suffered from a stroke which has left him with persistent left-sided weakness. The medication required is not available to him in jail.

Maya Foa, director of Reprieve’s death penalty team, which is supporting Mr Asghar, said: “One only needs to check Muhammad Asghar’s extensive UK medical records to see that he is a seriously mentally ill man, in dire need of medical care. The evidence is clear that he is unable to defend himself in court.

“Worse still, he is currently being held in utterly unsuitable conditions in prison, and we are very concerned about his health. The British government must immediately take all necessary steps to secure Mr Asghar’s safety.”

A spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: “We are aware that a British national, Muhammad Asghar, is facing the death penalty in Pakistan. We strongly object to the use of the death penalty and will continue to provide consular assistance.

“We have continuously made representations to the Pakistan government on behalf of Mr Asghar and we will continue to do so. We are opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances and we are dedicated to doing all we can to prevent the execution of any British national.”

‘Vulnerable people are particularly at risk’

Those who stand accused of breaking Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws face human rights abuses and unreliable court hearings, according to one expert.

Amnesty International’s Pakistan researcher Mustafa Qadri said: “Evidence shows Muhammad Asghar is mentally ill, but despite that he has been sentenced to death – this shows that these laws sweep aside any chance of a reasonable judgement being made.

“The problem with the blasphemy cases are they’re too sensitive, when people are accused it’s difficult for the police to investigate for fear of repeating it and being accused themselves. Vulnerable people, such as those from religious minorities or those involved in disputes, are particularly at risk of accusations.”

Qadri added in one case, a man had been accused of blasphemy simply for throwing a business card in the bin which bore the name “Mohammad”.

He said: “Situations in which people are accused of blasphemy are very common – some have their convictions quashed, but it’s rare.

“No one who has been convicted of blasphemy has ever been killed. But the right of centre Government has said publicly that it will stand by executions, because it wants to be seen as tough on crime.

“The threat of the death penalty is very real.”

Psychiatrist’s warning

Muhammad Asghar was sectioned in the Capital’s Royal Victoria Hospital just months before his arrest.

He was treated by Dr Jane McLennan, a senior consultant at Royal Victoria Hospital, who wrote a letter detailing the severity of his mental state which was submitted to the court.

But the evidence was not presented by the state counsel who replaced Mr Asghar’s legal team.

A highly respected medic, Dr McLennan is a member of the Royal College of Psychiatry and is recognised by the Scottish Government as having special expertise in the treatment and diagnosis of mental disorder.

While in Dr McLennan’s care, Mr Asghar had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

In 2000, he had also suffered a stroke, and as a result needed to use a walking stick and required anti-seizure medication. Dr McLennan said Mr Asghar suffered from delusions, among them that he was a very holy man, which may have led him to described himself in “exaggerated terms, while not meaning to commit blasphemy”.

She said: “. . . he presented a good social facade, such that those without sufficient professional training might miss the indicators of his illness.

Dr McLennan said it was very likely he was still exhibiting the symptoms and signs of his illness at the time of the alleged offence even if he had have been fully medicated at the time. And she was also concerned for his safety, stating there was a “major concern” that he would take his own life if he remained in prison.

She added: “I would recommend that he be urgently reassessed and treated in the first instance in a psychiatric hospital.”

Testimony often linked to grudges

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws carry a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam.

The laws have been contentious since the formation of Pakistan in 1947.

Critics of the law say convictions hinge on witness testimony, which is often linked to grudges.

In 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard having appealed for the pardon of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

The assassination divided Pakistan, with some hailing his killer – who is detained in the same prison as Muhammad Asghar – as a hero.

A month later, minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti – a Christian critic of blasphemy laws – was killed by self-described Taliban gunmen.