Note: This blog was first published on Dawn.com on Oct 2, 2014.
Pakistan has seen an alarming surge in blasphemy accusations this year, shattering all previous records.
More worrisome is the fact that most of these charges are completely unfounded, as is evident in the in-jail shooting of a 70 year-old man convicted of blasphemy in Rawalpindi last week.
The tale of Muhammad Asghar is as common as it is tragic. What's worse is that they often go unnoticed.
An aged British citizen, Asghar suffers from debilitating paranoid schizophrenia, which is characterised by paranoid delusions and auditory hallucinations. For the last four years, he has remained imprisoned under dire conditions after being sentenced to death for blasphemy.
I hope all of us will agree at least on this much: imprisoning a old man suffering from mental disease, without any treatment is not only irrational, but extremely inhumane.
What could be worse? This man is scheduled to be executed for symptoms that are distinct sequelae of his long term paranoid schizophrenia.
It is imperative for us to explore the case of Muhammad Asghar further, in order to understand our country’s flawed justice system.
Asghar’s medical records from Edinburgh, Scotland indicate that in 1993, he was first treated for a major mood disorder more commonly known as depression. In the year 2000, he suffered from a stroke and his psychiatrist at the time reported a new diagnosis of seizures, worsening depression, and delusional beliefs of a grandiose and paranoid nature at that time.
Shortly after his stroke in February of 2010, Asghar was admitted to a psychiatric hospital under an Emergency Detention Certificate after expressing paranoid delusions. He was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Edinburgh with a diagnosis of late onset Paranoid Schizophrenia.
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This legal detention revealed that Muhammad Asghar had been suffering from psychosis since his stroke, and was convinced that he was being persecuted by British and Pakistani governments, and that his house was “bugged”.
He required detention at that time because he was lacking insight into his illness, refused treatment, and could not see that his beliefs and actions were not rational. As a healthcare professional, one can easily discern the plight of this man and the severity of his illness.
People have to understand that many individuals with mental disease will present a deceiving social façade that prohibits those without sufficient professional training from recognising mental disease. Those afflicted with very severe mental disease can have seemingly logical conversations at times; but in no way does this nullify their mental illness diagnosis.
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Asghar’s legal detention in Scotland expired quickly as he was no longer deemed a risk to himself or others. He was closely followed as an outpatient and several notes indicate that he continued to have grandiose and persecutory delusions.
He continued to lack insight, and his family too, failed to comprehend his diagnosis. This is a common problem as people typically dismiss mental disease as frivolous. As a result, the encouragement needed to comply with medication from family members is never present.
It is unlikely that Muhammad Asghar ever complied fully with medication, further impeding his chance at recovery. As a result, he fled to Pakistan to escape what he felt were unjust restrictions on his liberty in Scotland.
Sadly, he was grossly mistaken.
For the last several years, Muhammad Asghar has been held against his will in a maximum security jail with minimal medical care after a disgruntled tenant reported him for a blasphemous offence.
After his offence, Asghar was hauled off to court where a fearful judge refused to acknowledge his psychiatric disease and rejected all previous medical records. Locked in a cell, awaiting a death sentence, Asghar’s condition deteriorated significantly.
A few weeks ago, an employed prison guard barged into his cell, shouting at the diseased frail old man and then, shot him in the back.
I could not envision things getting any worse for Asghar, but recently I learned that he will have to go back to the same jail where his health, well-being and security were originally violated.
I was utterly disgusted by the news.
Sadly, there is a growing epidemic of blasphemy charges within Pakistan. An even bigger number of people are being prosecuted unfairly.
While there are a number of factors responsible for this, a fledgling justice system unwilling to dismiss these spurious charges, out of fear, is largely culpable for instigating this problem.
There is a huge void of brave lawyers and judges willing to defend those charged, as threats to their own security persist.
Pakistan has deprived Muhammad Asghar of treatment, justice and functionality.
An even bigger failure would be to authorise his return to jail, and consequent death.