My parents moved from Pakistan to London, where I was born, in the 1960s. I have many friends and family there and it’s a second home for many more. Following post-independence migration from Pakistan to the UK, we now have the second largest overseas Pakistani population, with an estimated 1.2 million British citizens of Pakistani ancestry.
As one of those 1.2 million, I am appalled at the shocking case of Mohammad Asghar, a 69-year-old British grandfather, who has been found guilty of blasphemy by a court in Rawalpindi and sentenced to death following claims, in private letters, that he was the Prophet Mohamed. He should be released to the care of his family immediately.
Pakistan has a moratorium on the death penalty, but it is a clear breach of his human rights that he is detained without access to treatment. He has already attempted suicide once and his life is under real threat from Muslim extremists. And due to a huge backlog of cases, his lawyers report that the appeal may take up to five years to be heard.
The British Government needs to redouble its efforts to get Mr Asghar returned to the UK. Thanks in large part to The Independent’s campaign, international pressure is growing, with support from human rights organisations and charities across the world. The Pakistani government must listen.
However, Mr Asghar’s case also highlights wider problems, and offends me on a number of levels – as a Muslim, as someone of Pakistani ancestry, as an advocate for human rights and as someone who believes in the primacy and power of democracy.
As a practising Muslim, I find it intolerable that my faith is used an excuse to justify this. This hatred has nothing to do with the Islam that millions practise peacefully. It does our faith a huge disservice and I condemn it.
As an advocate for human rights and a former human rights lawyer, I find it inexcusable that any justice system can ignore a defendant’s mental health.
Many Britons love Pakistan, not just those of Pakistani ancestry. It was founded on the ideal of religious tolerance. As the state’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, said: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the state.”
Last year I had the privilege to travel to Pakistan as an international election observer, where I witnessed first-hand Pakistan finally abandoning the cycle of military rule and failed attempts at democracy.
With the inspirational bravery of Malala Yousafzai showing the world what sort of country Pakistan really is – a country with an increasingly bright and dynamic future – Pakistan has a real opportunity to be known around the world for more positive reasons than in the past. Yet whilst this British grandfather remains detained, all we see is yet another example of Pakistan on the front pages for all the wrong reasons.
Rt Hon Sadiq Khan is the MP for Tooting, shadow Justice Secretary and shadow Minister for London