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Pakistan condemns mentally ill Briton to death for blasphemy

An Afghan refugee man holds his son in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has handed a death sentence for blasphemy to a 69-year-old Briton with a history of mental illness, even though his lawyers were barred from the courtroom partway through the trial, the lawyers said Friday.

Accusations of blasphemy are surging in Pakistan, according to an Islamabad-based think tank, the Center for Research and Security Studies. Many analysts see the claims as score-settling or a front for property grabs.

The charges are hard to fight because the law does not define what is blasphemous and presenting the evidence can sometimes itself be considered a fresh infringement.

Blasphemy is punishable by death in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Muhammad Asghar from Edinburgh was sentenced to death Thursday, the law firm said, citing court officials in the city of Rawalpindi, neighboring the capital.

The firm said it was not present during the judgment because the judge had prevented it from representing Asghar in court since October.

He was arrested in 2010 after writing letters to a lawyer and politician claiming to be a prophet. Though Asghar did not post the letters, a disgruntled tenant whom he was in the process of evicting took them to police, the law firm said.

“Asghar claimed to be a prophet even inside the court. He confessed it in front of the judge,” Javed Gul, a government prosecutor, said.

“Asghar used to write it even on his visiting card.”

Asghar has previously been detained under the mental health act in Britain and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, the law firm said.

After the removal of the law firm, Asghar was appointed a state counsel, who did not put his medical history in evidence or call witnesses in his defense, and did not question a state-appointed board that declared him sane, the firm said.

A source close to the case, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of blasphemy allegations in Pakistan, said Asghar had attempted suicide while being held in Adiala prison.

The law firm also asked not to be identified for fear of being targeted by extremists. Lawyers defending those accused of blasphemy frequently receive death threats and politicians supporting reform of the law have been killed.

In 2012, Rimsha Masih, a young Christian girl, was arrested for alleged blasphemy in Islamabad.

The case provoked international concern because of her age, estimated at 14, and because she was variously described as “uneducated” or suffering from Down’s syndrome.

The charges against her were eventually thrown out and last June she fled to Canada with her family.

There have been several cases where mobs have attacked mentally ill people who have made supposedly blasphemous claims.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 25, 2014, on page 8.

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Summary

Pakistan has handed a death sentence for blasphemy to a 69-year-old Briton with a history of mental illness, even though his lawyers were barred from the courtroom partway through the trial, the lawyers said Friday.

The charges are hard to fight because the law does not define what is blasphemous and presenting the evidence can sometimes itself be considered a fresh infringement.

Blasphemy is punishable by death in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Muhammad Asghar from Edinburgh was sentenced to death Thursday, the law firm said, citing court officials in the city of Rawalpindi, neighboring the capital.

The law firm also asked not to be identified for fear of being targeted by extremists. Lawyers defending those accused of blasphemy frequently receive death threats and politicians supporting reform of the law have been killed.


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