The prospect of a British national executed in a foreign land is one that could not be borne with equanimity in any event. In the case of Muhammad Asghar, the affront to justice, dignity and common humanity is more egregious still.
The 69-year-old grandfather, who spent 40 years in Britain, was sentenced to death in Pakistan yesterday. His crime? He claimed to be the Prophet Mohamed in private, unsent letters that came to light only when they were handed in by a man with whom he was in dispute.
The explanation is obvious. Mr Asghar has suffered from paranoid schizophrenia for several years, following a stroke in 2000. Under Pakistan’s indefensibly archaic anti-blasphemy laws, however, such details are immaterial. Indeed, the sworn affidavit of a leading British psychiatrist was dismissed by the court in Rawalpindi during a trial in which the defendant’s independent lawyers were arbitrarily replaced by state counsel. The only halfway good news is that Pakistan has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty for several years so, although sentenced, Mr Asghar is unlikely to be executed imminently. Meanwhile, his legal team is already putting together an appeal.
But there is little real comfort. It would be troubling enough if this very ill man were to be left languishing in a Pakistani jail. More likely, though, he will either commit suicide (as he has already tried to do once, since his incarceration in 2010) or he will be murdered by Muslim extremists offended by his supposed “crimes”.
There are no grey areas here and can be no equivocation. Mr Asghar is a British citizen and he must be returned to Britain with all possible expedition. The Foreign Office stresses that representations have been made to the Pakistani government to secure his release. Efforts must be doubled and redoubled until they are successful.