British Muslim Awarded death penalty on blasphemy

LONDON: Pakistani Court has awarded death penalty to a 70-year-old British man after he was found guilty of blasphemy. Muhammad Asghar a 70 year old belonging Edinburgh, Scotland, was accused of writing letters to various people asking them he is a prophet and they have to follow him. He was living in Pakistan for several years.

“We are afraid that Asghar is not going to live long enough to see an appeal against his death sentence.” Asghar’s lawyer told media. This case is highly sensitive because of the strong reaction by the religious right to blasphemy cases. It is so sensitive that lawyers requested their names be withheld for security reasons. Muhammad Asghar is a British Pakistani from Edinburgh who came back to Pakistan to look after the family’s property here. He has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by the Royal Victoria Hospital in Edinburgh and is also partially paralyzed from a stroke.

The blasphemy complaint against Asghar was filed by a tenant in his building, after he was given an eviction notice. Sources said there is pressure on the court from religious extremists who have been seen in mobs outside the courthouse. He tried to take his own life once in jail, where has been held since 2010. The authorities have refused to put him on suicide watch, his lawyer said. There is also fear that religious extremists might harm him.

Asghar is currently in the same jail where Mumtaz Qadri, who has assassinated former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer for speaking out against the country’s strict blasphemy laws. The court was informed that Muhammad Asghar was arrested in 2010 after he was writing letters to various people claiming to be a prophet, reports revealed.

“Asghar claimed to be a prophet even inside the court. He confessed it in front of the judge”, a prosecutor told media. The defence counsel of Asghar pleaded before the court for leniency, saying he has a history of mental illness. But the court was informed that this plea was rejected by a medical panel.

But later his lawyer said she was forced to leave the case by the judge and then proceedings were carried out behind closed doors. She said she will launch an appeal against the verdict, which was delivered late on Thursday. Higher judiciary in Pakistan was known to overturn blasphemy verdicts handed down in lower courts because of insufficient evidence.

Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws carry a potential death sentence for anyone who commits blasphemy by insulting Islam. Several recent cases have prompted international concern about the application of these laws. It is worth mentioning here that Asghar was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and had treatment at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Edinburgh, but the court did not accept his medical reports from the UK, the media reported, adding that Asghar was in jail since his arrest in 2010 and he tried to take his own life in jail on one occasion.

Asghar is unlikely to be executed as Pakistan has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2008, the reports said, adding that Asghar was also ordered to pay a substantial fine by the court.

A Scottish government spokesman said the Scottish Government is “concerned” about the case. “As a minimum we would urge the Pakistani authorities to abide by the moratorium they have on the death penalty. Our thoughts are with Asghar’s family at this difficult time,” the Scottish spokesman was quoted as saying by media.

Senior UK Foreign Office Minister Baroness Saeeda Warsi said British officials were providing consular support to Muhammad Asghar. “We will be raising our concerns in the strongest possible terms with the Pakistani government,” Warsi was quoted as saying by media.

The President and Vice President of the Methodist Church in Britain have expressed “grave concern” over automatic death sentences for new blasphemy charges in Pakistan.

In an open letter to the Pakistani High Commission and the British Foreign and Commonwealth office, Reverend Ruth Gee and Dr Daleep Mukarji, the leaders of the UK’s 230,000 Methodists, described the new policy as an “unjust response”.

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