Hopes are rising that a blasphemy death sentence imposed on a mentally ill British pensioner could be overturned on appeal, after the Pakistan High Commission said the case was being “thoroughly investigated so an innocent person does not become victim of misplaced judicial process”.
In a remarkably candid statement distancing itself from the ruling, a commission spokesman said: “The government of Pakistan believes in the policy as dictated by Islam that it is better to acquit one hundred guilty in order to avoid punishment to one innocent person.”
International pressure has been mounting for the release of Mohammed Asghar, 69, who was convicted of blasphemy after claiming he was the Prophet Mohammed, despite suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Blasphemy carries a death sentence in Pakistan.
His family spoke for the first time on Monday to urge the British Government to intervene and help bring him home for psychiatric treatment.
The Pakistan High Commission in London said it had received “messages of concern” from UK residents and politicians, including senior Foreign Office minister, Baroness Saeeda Warsi.
In a conciliatory statement on Monday night, it said: “Pakistan High Commission wishes to inform all concerned that the claim that Mohammed Asghar was a mental case was perhaps not brought out in the proceedings of the case. Obviously in that state of mind his conduct in the court must have been responsible for the sentence.
“While the matter is being investigated, Pakistan High Commission hopes that in his appeal before higher appellate court, Mohammad Asghar’s lawyers would be able to forcefully plead his case of mental condition on the basis of his previous history in UK. It is also hoped that justice would be done on the grounds of his mental infirmity.”
Earlier in the day Mr Asghar’s family, who live in Edinburgh, say that they are growing increasingly desperate over his plight.
“We are really upset and concerned that they will never release him and that he will die in jail. He has already attempted suicide unsuccessfully,” they said. “We just want him back home where hopefully he can be treated for and recover from his mental illness. We urge the British Government to intervene and bring him home to us where he will be safe.”
Despite the signs of progress, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was under increased pressure to try and secure his release on compassionate grounds.
The shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, wrote to him on Monday asking that he make immediate representations to Pakistan’s Government on the case.
Baroness Warsi said she was “deeply concerned” by the case, adding: “I am personally raising this in the strongest possible terms with the Pakistani government as are officials here and in Islamabad.”
Independent lawyers acting for Mr Asghar say they are continuing to be denied access to the frail retired shopkeeper.
His legal team say Mr Asghar’s constitutional rights are continuing to be flouted by the prison authorities following the trial in Rawalpindi during which the judge ordered his lawyers to be replaced by a state counsel.
The nature of his condition means he is unaware that he is mentally ill, according to a leading Scottish psychiatrist whose evidence was not submitted during the trial.
Lawyers fear they will not be able to see him in prison until it is too late to get him to sign a secondary power of attorney and lodge an appeal. Under Pakistan law this must be lodged with the court seven days after conviction.