A severely mentally ill British pensioner sentenced to death in Pakistan after being found guilty of breaching the country’s blasphemy laws is being denied independent legal advice to help him appeal against the threat of execution.
Lawyers representing Muhammad Asghar, 69, from Edinburgh, were told they could not see him in prison this weekend in defiance of his constitutional rights despite having pre-arranged a visit through the jail authorities.
Mr Asghar, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia by a leading consultant in Scotland and is believed to be suicidal as well as at risk of revenge attacks by religious extremists, has seven days to lodge an appeal against his sentence which has prompted international outrage from human rights organisations. As well as being partly paralysed down one side of his body following a stroke he also demonstrates little awareness that he is mentally ill.
Mr Asghar’s legal team was forcibly removed from the original trial which ended last week. The retired grocery shop owner was found guilty by a judge after state-appointed counsel failed to raise vital expert medical evidence proving he was unfit to stand trial for allegedly claiming to be the Prophet Mohammed in a series of unsent letters which were handed in to police by a man with whom he was embroiled in a property dispute.
Lawyers urgently need to get Mr Asghar to sign a secondary power of attorney allowing them to lodge an appeal by Thursday.
Even if the papers are filed in time he still faces up to a five year wait until the case is reconsidered by the appeal court in Rawalpindi. The appeal itself could take at least a further year.
“We were told by the prison department that we would be allowed to see him on Saturday. But after waiting several hours we were told we could not meet him,” Mr Asghar’s legal team, who asked not to be named for fear of being targeted by Islamists, told The Independent.
“We have no idea what conditions he is being kept in because we have no way of contacting him except to go and see him in the prison. We are not being allowed to do our job,” a spokesman for the lawyers added.
It is not known whether Mr Asghar is on suicide watch at Adiala jail and what - if anything - is being done to isolate him from vigilante prisoners who might wish to kill him for his alleged blasphemy.
Among his fellow inmates in is Mumtaz Qadri who was treated as a hero when he shot dead the governor of Punjab province after he took the unusual step of publicly criticising the legislation.
The businessman’s lawyers and his Scottish doctor are desperately concerned for the grandfather’s wellbeing after he attempted suicide following his incarceration in Pakistan in 2010.
He had travelled to his birth country when he was released from hospital after being sectioned in Edinburgh. Among his grandiose symptoms, which included claiming to be a holy man, were delusions that he was being bugged by the British, Pakistan and United States secret services.
His condition, which was sparked by a stroke in 2000, is believed to be worsening in the absence of receiving appropriate medical care. He was last described as being physically and mentally weak and “barely lucid” sharing a cell with a number of other prisoners.
Mr Asghar lived in Scotland for 40 years and ran a grocery shop in Leith. He was a well-known member of Edinburgh’s Muslim community and worshiped at the Shah Jalal Mosque and Islamic Centre in the city. It is believed he has two daughters still living in Scotland whilst his wife is said to be unwell and living in Rawalpindi.
Despite a 2008 moratorium on the death penalty in Pakistan there is growing international unease over the country’s sacred religious laws.
Dr Usama Hasan, senior researcher in Islamic Studies for the Quilliam Foundation said the restrictions were a legacy of British rule although they were tightened under General Zia’s military regime in the 1980s.
“This case shows once again why the blasphemy laws should be reformed. The irony is that they date back to the British times when they were meant to keep the peace between different faith communities and prevent communal violence,” he said.
“It has become a different issue now and the blasphemy laws are supported by religious conservatives and the Taliban and their supporters because they want a harsh and narrow interpretation of sharia law,” he added.
The case has so far provoked little publicity inside Pakistan where speaking out against the blasphemy laws has resulted in the deaths of two of the country’s most prominent politicians and created a climate of fear.
Experts say it is impossible to defend someone accused of breaching the religious laws without being accused of blasphemy. It is claimed up to five judges presided over Mr Asghar’s trial before the sentence was handed down behind closed doors.
Dr Hasan said pressure could be brought to bear on the case. “Most people know that someone who is mentally ill is not responsible for their actions. If the case was properly championed there would be a lot of support and sympathy.”
The Foreign Office said it would continue to make representations to the Pakistan government on behalf of Mr Asghar.