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Family of Mohammad Asghar: ‘We just want our father home’

Last week an elderly, mentally ill British man was shot by a guard in the Pakistani prison he has been held in for four years. Why is no one helping, his daughter asks
    • The Guardian, Saturday 4 October 2014
Jasmine Rana
‘We thought that was it. They would kill him’ … Jasmine Rana, daughter of Mohammad Asghar. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

In the bundle of family photographs and yellowing Polaroids in Jasmine Rana’s lounge, the decades are muddled up. In one, her beaming father wears a bright blue salwar kameez and cradles her baby son. In another she is a teenager helping her father in his grocer’s shop. The next – in which her father has a beard and a prayer cap – is more familiar; it is the picture used in news reports last week announcing the 70-year-old had been shot.

Sitting in the Edinburgh flat Rana shares with her four children, it’s hard to imagine the dark turn her family’s life has taken in the last six years. In 2008 Mohammad Asghar began having delusions that he was being watched, followed and spied upon. In 2010 he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and sectioned for a month under the Mental Health Act. A few months later, against the wishes of his family, he and his wife travelled to Pakistan. He owns three properties in the country, and there, his family believe, he became entangled in a dispute with a tenant.

Mohammad Asghar-accused of blasphemy

Then, in September 2010, came the news that the father of five had been arrested and accused of blasphemy. It appeared, after some digging, that the tenant had reported Asghar for writing letters in which he claimed to be a prophet. Despite lawyers providing the court with evidence that Asghar was mentally ill, he was sentenced to death.

“I remember I had just dropped my children off at school when my sister rang,” says Rana. “I was in shock. I was screaming in the car. We thought that was it. They would kill him.”

Since 2008 there has officially been a moratorium on the death penalty in Pakistan, but the frenzy that follows a charge of blasphemy regularly erupts into vigilantism. On 25 September the Asghar family received the news they had been dreading: a police officer had entered their father’s cell and shot him in the back. He survived but is now in intensive care.

Mohammad Asghar
‘I believe if Mr Asghar had been white, younger, not Muslim, without a beard, then there would be a national outrage about it’

“We are on the edge every second,” Rana says. “I can’t stop looking at my phone. Every time it rings I think it is bad news. Every time. I just want him back.” Aamer Anwar, the family’s lawyer, says that unless action is taken soon, it may be too late. “Mr Asghar’s life is hanging by a thread.” It is urgent, he adds, that Asghar is transferred to a secure medical facility and not taken back to the prison.

Although blasphemy was codified into Indian law in 1860, when the state was still under British rule, it was rarely evoked until the dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s – when the numbers of cases skyrocketed. There is still no strict definition of blasphemy, and it can be difficult to give evidence, because even repeating the words that have given rise to the charge is considered blasphemous. Often little more than the accuser’s word is needed, and critics say the laws are regularly used to settle scores, or to harass religious minorities.

In recent years a school has been burned to the ground after a teacher was accused of blasphemy – a girl had miscopied her homework, running together a sentence about beggars and the prophet. A 14-year-old Christian girl was imprisoned for burning an Islamic textbook – until it transpired that evidence had been planted by a cleric.

Although the case was dropped she had to seek asylum in Canada. Lawyers who have defended those accused of blasphemy, campaigners who have supported the accused and judges who have acquitted them have all been murdered. In 2011 Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was shot dead by one of his elite police guards after calling for the laws to be repealed – the guard is currently imprisoned in the same Rawalpindi jail as Asghar. Against such an intimidating background, notes Catherine Higham, an investigator with the anti-death penalty charity, Reprieve, it is extremely hard to secure a fair trial. Even so, she says: “This is one of the most unfair trials I have ever seen.”

One judge in the case, unwilling to be seen as sympathetic to a blasphemer, refused to allow medical evidence of Asghar’s mental health to be included. It was only when he tried to kill himself that another judge insisted on a medical board report on his state, say Reprieve. But while this was being carried out a mob formed outside the hospital calling for Asghar to be killed and threatening the doctors, who, frightened, ruled he was only suffering from depression.

Throughout their father’s ordeal, says Rana, the family have been told by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) not to speak to the media, in case they endangered their father’s life or the behind-the-scenes pressure exerted in Pakistan. But they have become angry that despite assurances from the government of Punjab that there would be extra security for Asghar, and that he could be sent medication from the UK, neither has happened. Increasingly they feel that not enough is being done, and have decided to speak out.

Politicians such as Sadiq Khan have lobbied for Asghar, and David Cameron has mentioned the case in parliament. The FCO says it is “deeply concerned” and that officers have “raised our concerns about his wider case, including through the former foreign secretary, and will continue to do so”.

But Anwar says the FCO’s job is complicated by having to deal with political sensitivities and balance Asghar’s case with priorities such as security issues and intelligence gathering. “The Pakistani government don’t want anyone interfering with their internal affairs,” he says, “and the FCO have to maintain a good working relationship with them. There is a difficult situation in Pakistan because the personalities in the government who [might have] a role to play in this are fighting for survival and I suspect Mr Asghar is at the bottom of their list.”

But his shooting has underlined the urgency needed. “It’s no longer a question of waiting for bureaucracy and procedures to take place,” says Anwar. “We have a matter of days in which to take important steps to ensure his security and save his life. Since January we have asked for the top state psychiatrist to have access to Mr Asghar to see if he was fit to stand trial and even that hasn’t been delivered. So the idea we can still adopt a softly, softly approach is no longer acceptable.”

Anwar is blunt about why he thinks Asghar’s case has been allowed to languish for so long.

“I believe if Mr Asghar had been a bit more photogenic – white, younger, not Muslim, without a beard – then there would be a national outrage about it. When most people hear about this [case] they are shocked that this has been allowed to happen, and that there has not been a greater political will to resolve the matter. When two British girls were detained for drug smuggling, there were hour-by-hour reports, and they weren’t going to be shot at by police officers. I am not saying they were not of paramount importance, but what has Mr Asghar done wrong?”

 Rawalpindi prison, Pakistan
When Asghar is released from hospital his family want him sent to a mental health facility rather than back to the prison in Rawalpindi, above, where he was shot.Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Plucking nervously at her fingers, Rana says the ordeal has been nearly impossible to bear. She cannot stop thinking about her father, who walked with a stick after a stroke 10 years ago. She breaks down as she recounts how, even after being shot, her father is still trying to spare his family’s feelings. “When he was told his children wanted to know how he was, my dad said: ‘I’m absolutely fine, tell them not to worry.’ He would never say he is in pain.

“You hear on the news people saying, ‘This or that is a nightmare’, but it is much, much worse. It’s like nothing you can describe – you are angry, frustrated, helpless. It’s gone on for so long that it’s hard to have a normal life. I can’t sleep. I have to tell my kids to write down what they want to tell me and put it on Post-it notes, otherwise I don’t remember. My youngest says, ‘Mum, you would love it if Grandad came back’, because she knows the only time they have my 100% attention is when they mention Grandad.”

Mohammad Asghar- his background

Her father, she says, was a teenager when he came to the UK with his father, who was in the British army. He had an arranged marriage not long afterwards; he became a naturalised British citizen, but retained Pakistani citizenship as well. Although he had little education, he started working at 15 and built up a number of businesses, including grocery shops and rental properties.

“He was always thinking of new businesses,” says Rana, 40, laughs. “He worked hard – from 7am to 10pm every day in the shops with no days off. We would have to go in before we went to school in the mornings and then help out at weekends. He was a millionaire at three different times. But he always trusted the wrong people, and they took advantage of him.

“If you said you liked that TV over there, he would pull out the plug to give it to you. I don’t know if it was because he wanted people to like him – but he gets happy when he sees other people happy. He’s always been like that.”

Mohammad Asghar and Schizophrenia

When Rana was 12, the family moved from Birmingham to Edinburgh, where they still live. Her father’s mental illness, she says, first “started in little bits. When he came over to talk, he would ask me to switch the TV off and unplug the phone. He would say there were people listening in the TV.

“I think we didn’t want to accept something was wrong.” But things got worse. “He would make me sit in the car with him to talk, or drive round behind walls so no one could hear.”

By 2010, according to medical reports, Mohammad Asghar was suffering persecutory delusions – fearing Tony Blair and George Bush were having him followed, and that his home was bugged. He complained to the police and that was when he was detained and diagnosed. The report says he was still being treated, but had no “insight” into his condition, refusing to believe he was ill. After leaving hospital he stopped taking his medication. He left for Pakistan without telling his children.

Two years ago she visited her father in prison. Although it was dirty and the guards were rude, Mohammad Asghar came out of his cell looking immaculate. But he had little grasp on reality. “He started talking to me like we were in his living room. He had a newspaper cutting with him and he said, ‘Look I have a picture of your brother.’ It wasn’t him at all, but I had to say, ‘That’s great,’ because he must have been missing him so much.”

This week, after the shooting and an approach from Anwar, Alex Salmond promised to intervene personally with the Pakistani government and the family are pressing for a meeting with Cameron. “I don’t think David Cameron has done enough,” says Anwar. “I cannot believe if this was anyone else he would be rotting in prison for four years.”

Rana says she has not yet given up hope that she will get her father back.

“My father has worked hard all his life and this is the time he should be with us, enjoying his grandchildren. If I have to go to Pakistan again then I will. If they shoot me I would take that bullet for my dad. If I don’t do anything with my life but bring my dad back here would be a big achievement.”