A court in Pakistan has sentenced a British man to death for blasphemy for claiming to be a prophet of Islam, a prosecutor and police said on Friday.
Mohammad Asghar, a British national of Pakistani origin, was arrested in 2010 in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near the capital, Islamabad, for writing letters claiming to be a prophet, police said.
The special court inside Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail, where Asghar is being held, rejected defense claims that the 65-year-old has mental health problems.
Pakistan’s tough blasphemy laws have attracted criticism from rights groups, who say they are frequently abused to settle personal scores.
“Asghar claimed to be a prophet even inside the court. He confessed it in front of the judge,” government prosecutor Javed Gul said. “Asghar used to write it even on his visiting card.”
Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed was the last messenger of God.
Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population is Muslim and insulting the Prophet Mohammed can carry the death penalty.
However, the country has had a de facto moratorium on civilian hangings since 2008. Only one person has been executed since then, a soldier convicted by court martial.
In 2006 the then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf commuted the death sentence on a British man convicted of murder after appeals from then-British prime minister Tony Blair and Prince Charles.
Asghar has a long history of mental health problems, including hospital treatment in Scotland in 2003, according to a source close to the case.
The source, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of blasphemy allegations in Pakistan, said Asghar had attempted suicide while being held in Adiala prison.
The court refused to accept Asghar’s British medical records, the source said.
A medical board examined Asghar after defense lawyers said he was suffering from some mental disorder, but the prosecutor said they “declared him as a normal person.”
A police official in the Sadiq Abad neighborhood of Rawalpindi, where Asghar was arrested, confirmed the death sentence.
On Friday Britain’s Senior Foreign Office Minister Sayeeda Warsi condemned the move.
“It is the longstanding policy of Her Majesty’s Government to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances... We will be raising our concerns in the strongest possible terms with the Pakistani government,” she said in a statement issued by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has been providing consular support to Asghar.
In 2012, Rimsha Masih, a young Christian girl, was arrested for alleged blasphemy in Islamabad.
The case provoked international concern because of her age, estimated at 14, and because she was variously described as “uneducated” or suffering from Down’s syndrome.
The charges against here were eventually thrown out and in June last year she fled to Canada with her family.
Even unproven allegations of blasphemy can provoke a violent public response. There have been several cases where mobs have attacked mentally ill people who have made supposedly blasphemous claims.