Mohammad Asghar, a 69-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, faces a death sentence in Pakistan for claiming to be the Prophet Muhammad in letters written to officials and police in 2010.
The retired British national of Pakistani descent is partially paralyzed after a stroke, but Pakistani courts have so far refused to acknowledge his physical and mental limitations.
The charges against Asghar recall the case of Rimsha Masih, a teenage girl who was alleged to have dumped torn and burnt pages of the Quran into a garbage heap nearly two years ago.
Rimsha, who is Christian, was also arrested under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which stipulates a life sentence for defiling the Quran.
Later, it emerged that the torn and burnt pages were from an Arabic primer. Rimsha, whose lawyers claim she is developmentally disabled, was granted bail and whisked away in a helicopter amid tight security.
The Pakistan Penal Code prohibits blasphemy against any recognized religion, providing penalties ranging from life imprisonment to death.
The law has been widely abused in Pakistan, where some 247 blasphemy cases have been registered, affecting the lives of 435 people, since 1987, according to a 2013 report from the Center for Research and Security Studies, an independent think tank based in Islamabad.
Though the courts have not sentenced anyone to death for blasphemy, 52 Pakistanis have fallen prey to extrajudicial killings as a result of blasphemy charges. According to the CRSS research, 25 were Muslims, 15 Christians, five Ahmadis, one Buddhist, and one Hindu.
The growing misuse of the blasphemy law has riled some Pakistanis and, increasingly, foreign powers. British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “deeply concerned” about Asghar’s conviction. And British Foreign Minister Sayeeda Warsi spoke to Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif about restoring a moratorium on death penalty convictions for blasphemy. Sharif, younger brother of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, reportedly assured Warsi a review of the death penalty freeze was forthcoming.
Pakistan risks losing vital British support for greater trade access with the European Union if it does not agree to a moratorium on the death penalty sentences for blasphemy convictions.
But Babar Sattar, a popular columnist for the Dawn newspaper and a constitutional lawyer, said that after two high-profile killings, the mood has become so coercive that “a demand for amending the law is translated as blasphemy in itself.”
On Jan. 4, 2011, Punjab province’s outspoken governor Salman Taseer was shot 27 times from close range by his security guard Malik Mumtaz Qadri for favoring review of the blasphemy law.
Two months later, Minister for Religious Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, was shot dead for questioning the blasphemy law. Though the Waziristan-based Taliban have admitted killing him, no one has been arrested for the crime.
“One way of curbing abuse of the blasphemy law can be to award life imprisonment or death sentence for the false accuser,” said Tahir Ashrafi, a Muslim activist.
In rural areas of Sindh and Punjab province, Hindus and Christians have been forced to flee their homes after being threatened with accusations of insulting the Quran or the Prophet Muhammad.
Azhar Hussain, president of the Islamabad-based Peace & Education Foundation, which works for educational enhancement and religious reconciliation, believes the law leaves room for vigilantism owing to the weakness of law and order in the country.
“If Islamabad can’t suspend the law till its enforcement procedure is improved, the public needs to be educated about spirit and intent of the law,” Hussain said.
In one instance, Dr. Sajjad Farooq — who had memorized the Quran by heart — was beaten to death by a mob in the Punjab province on suspicion of committing blasphemy in 1995.
Aslam Khaki, a Supreme Court lawyer with doctorate degree in Shariah law, suggested that a committee consisting of religious scholars, lawyers, and civil servants should examine each allegation before a charge is brought.
Through the years, those accused of blasphemy have sometimes been smuggled out of Pakistan to Europe to allow tempers to die down. In June, Canada’s CBC News reported that Rimsha now lives at an undisclosed location in Toronto with her parents and siblings.
Asghar’s lawyers have appealed and are hoping for the best.