Speaking up against the blasphemy law in Pakistan often has fatal consequences as the few who do speak up face death threats

When 69-year-old British Pakistani, Mohammad Asghar came to Rawalpindi in 2010, he was shocked to find that one of the two properties he owned there was occupied by a notorious land grabber. He filed a complaint against him before leaving for the Haj pilgrimage but it was Asghar who was arrested on his return. His crime was that he claimed to be the Holy Prophet and wrote letters in his name and even printed visiting cards, for which he was charged with blasphemy, a criminal offence punishable with death under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC).

While awarding the death sentence on January 23, 2014, the sessions court which conducted the trial in Adiala jail disregarded his extensive medical records from Scotland in which it is evident he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. An affidavit in June 2011 submitted to the court by Dr. Jane McLennan, a consultant psychiatrist of Royal Victoria Hospital in Edinburgh, where Asghar lived with his family, says that he was her patient in February and March 2010. Records showed that in 1993, he was first referred to psychiatric services and treated for depression. In 2000 he suffered a cerebrovascular stroke and as a result walked with a limp, needing the support of a walking stick. He also suffered from psychiatric symptoms after the stroke which included depression and delusionary beliefs of a paranoid and grandiose nature. He had auditory hallucinations and persecutory delusions, believing that his home was bugged by the Pakistani and international media and that he was being persecuted for having written to Prime Minister Blair and President Bush, telling them the Iraq war was wrong, the affidavit said.

He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital on February 17, 2010, under an emergency detention certificate after expressing paranoid delusions regarding a Pakistani TV network and the police. He was diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia by Dr. McLennan when he was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital. She stressed that though he presented a good social facade, those without sufficient professional training might miss the indicators of his illness. This does not detract in any way from the severity of his illness or nullify the mental illness diagnosis, she said. He also had no insight into his illness and did not think he needed treatment and could not see his beliefs and actions were not rational.

When he was discharged from hospital on March 18, 2010, he required vigorous and ongoing treatment as he remained mentally unwell. However, neither he nor his family had any insight into his mental illness and the need for treatment and neither he nor they engaged with ongoing treatment. When he was visited by his community psychiatric nurse in March 2010, he was clearly exhibiting symptoms of paranoid psychosis. Dr. McLennan said that it seems unlikely that Asghar continued with his medication after he travelled to Pakistan. Even during his time in the Scotland hospital, he often referred to himself as being a very holy man. “If his condition worsened, as it seems to have done, he may have described himself in more exaggerated terms, while not meaning to commit blasphemy,” she said.

He was receiving basic medication and his condition would deteriorate as long as he remained in prison, she pointed out in the affidavit. The probability of him attempting to take his own life is significant and may be increased if he remains in prison, she added, while recommending a comprehensive treatment and rehabilitation plan. Sure enough, Asghar tried to commit suicide on January 8, 2012 and had to be hospitalised. However, the trial court did not take evidence from the hospital into account, and a hastily summoned medical panel certified him as normal. His lawyers were thrown out in October 2013 and not allowed to be present when the verdict was pronounced.

There has been much outrage in the U.K. and elsewhere after this latest conviction. Under Section 295-C of the PPC “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” Asghar’s lawyers say that all the evidence against him was produced by the complainant in the form of letters and visiting cards in which he claimed to be the Holy Prophet. While an appeal against the conviction has been filed in the Islamabad High Court, there are serious concerns about his health after his lawyers finally managed to meet him in jail.

Other convictions

This is not the first case where a mentally ill person has been convicted for blasphemy. Two years ago, a mentally ill girl Rimsha Masih was sentenced to death for blasphemy but she was finally acquitted by the court in 2012 and granted asylum in Canada. Her fellow Christian neighbours were forced to flee their homes in Meherabad and live in precarious housing conditions in Islamabad. Rimsha’s persecutor, a cleric, was acquitted in 2013 of filing false charges.

Aasia Bibi, a Christian from the Punjab province, became the first woman in the country’s history to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, according to Human Rights Watch. In 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and former federal minister, a Roman Catholic, Shahbaz Bhatti were killed for anti-blasphemy law statements and for supporting Aasia Bibi who continues to languish in jail. Her appeal is yet to be heard by the High Court. Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, is lodged in the same jail as Mr. Asghar and his death sentence is yet to be confirmed by the High Court. Former U.S. Ambassador Sherry Rehman faced threats after she proposed a bill banning the death penalty for blasphemy.

Targeting minorities

According to media reports, over 1,200 people have been charged with blasphemy from 1986 till 2010. The Human Rights Watch World Report 2014 says that abuses are rife under the country’s blasphemy law, which is used against religious minorities, often to settle personal disputes. Dozens of people were charged with the offence in 2013. At least 16 people remained on death row for blasphemy, while another 20 were serving life sentences.

In its State of Human Rights in 2012 report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) says, “Abuse of the blasphemy law continues to take a heavy toll in terms of human lives and harassment of citizens. A well thought-out plan should be put into place to make the citizens aware of the havoc that the abuse of this law has caused and how important it is to insert safeguards that can prevent that abuse.” Sections 295 to 295-C of the PPC are generally referred to as the blasphemy code. The punishments for offences under these provisions include death (under Section 295-C), life imprisonment, imprisonment for various periods and a fine. Pakistan has not executed anyone under Section 295-C. However, many of the accused have been killed by extremists outside the courts or in prisons, according to the HRCP.

Speaking up against the blasphemy law often has fatal consequences and the few who do speak up, face death threats. With little chance of the law being amended, minorities and those who stand up for them continue to live on an unrelenting razor’s edge.

meena.menon@thehindu.co.in

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