Lawyers representing the family of a man on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy have accused the Prime Minister of making a “dangerous mistake” at a critical stage in talks aimed at returning the Briton to the UK.
David Cameron condemned the treatment of 70-year-old Mohammad Asghar as “appalling”.
He told the House of Commons that, while the case for a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) was being considered, “those had to be suspended in recent years because Pakistan released prisoners whom we had returned to them”.
Aamer Anwar, who represents Mr Asghar’s family, insisted the Prime Minister is wrong and such an arrangement could be used to return Mr Asghar, from Edinburgh, to the UK.
Mr Anwar said:
“The Asghar family are deeply alarmed that the PM has got it so completely and utterly wrong on the question of the prisoner transfer agreement. It is extremely disappointing that he is unaware of the true facts as the PTA is not suspended.”
The lawyer said he had been advised by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill in August that a prisoner transfer agreement “was an option”, adding that this had been confirmed by Alex Salmond when he held talks with the First Minister last week.
Mr Anwar said:
” Scotland of course has its own legal jurisdiction and the Scottish Prison Authority would deal with any prisoner transfer rather than England. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office confirmed this afternoon to the Scottish Government following a request from myself for clarification that the PTA is not suspended.”
He was speaking after Sheila Gilmour, the Labour MP for Edinburgh East, raised the case with Mr Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Mr Asghar was sentenced to death in January after he was found guilty of writing letters to a number of people claiming he was a prophet.
The grandfather, who is said to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, was arrested in 2010 following a complaint by a tenant with whom he was having a dispute.
Insulting the Koran or the Prophet Mohammed can be punished with life imprisonment or death in Pakistan, and those accused of blasphemy are at high risk of attack.
On Friday, Mr Asghar’s daughter Jasmine Rana travelled from Edinburgh to present a 70,000-signature petition to Downing Street calling for Mr Cameron to intervene in the case.
The Prime Minister told MPs: ” The way this man has been treated is appalling. It is particularly appalling that … he was shot while in prison, supposedly being protected by the Pakistani authorities.
“We have raised this case – and I have raised it personally – with the leaders of Pakistan, and we are obviously considering the case for a prisoner transfer, but those had to be suspended in recent years because Pakistan released prisoners whom we had returned to them. So there is a problem there. However, we take this case very seriously and are raising it at every level in Pakistan.”
Mr Anwar insisted a prisoner transfer agreement
” is one of several options that we had asked the British Government to press the Pakistani authorities to ensure that Mohammad Asghar is returned to this country without further delay. We require much more from the PM than mere words but it would help greatly if he was also armed with the correct facts, rather than publicly making such a dangerous mistake at a critical stage of negotiations.”
“I am aware that the PM has written to his counterpart in Pakistan some weeks ago yet received no reply. Every hour that passes with Mr Asghar in custody in Pakistan is a further risk to his life.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “As the First Minister has already made clear, the Scottish Government is extremely concerned about the welfare of Mr Asghar.
“This is a situation which has been ongoing for many months and is causing considerable distress to his family. We will continue to do whatever can be done to support the wishes of the family and assist with the security and well-being of Mr Asghar, who is a Scottish resident.
“There are clear procedures for any international prisoner transfer agreement and that is a matter for the Scottish Prison Service in Scotland.
“The prisoner transfer agreement with Pakistan is not suspended. In the first instance it is for the prisoner to request such a transfer. This would then require approval from the Pakistani authorities, prior to being processed by the Scottish Prison Service.
“The Scottish Government has provided the Asghar family with appropriate information on those regulations, as well as our willingness to assist in any way we can.”