September 26, 2014 / 7:15 AM / 3 years ago

Pakistan policeman wounds British man jailed for blasphemy

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani policeman on Thursday shot and wounded a 70-year-old British man with a history of mental illness in the jail where he is on death row for blasphemy, his lawyers said.

An activist said a Christian pastor accused of the same offence was killed in the attack, but the pastor’s sister said on Friday this was not true and that the police had got their facts wrong.

The Briton, Muslim Muhammad Asghar, from Edinburgh, was arrested in 2010 and sentenced to death in January after a disgruntled tenant presented letters he had written saying he was a prophet.

A constable shot Asghar in jail in Rawalpindi, next to Islamabad, his lawyers said without elaborating.

This year has seen a record number of blasphemy accusations, according to an Islamabad-based think-tank, the Center for Research and Security Studies. Many analysts say the claims are increasingly used to settle scores or grab property.

Blasphemy charges, punishable by death in Muslim-majority Pakistan, are hard to fight because the law does not define what is blasphemous. Presenting the evidence can sometimes itself be considered a fresh infringement.

Asghar had previously been detained under the mental health act in Britain and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, according to documents his lawyers supplied to Reuters.

His lawyers were barred from attending the last few months of his trial.

The law firm asked not to be identified for fear of being targeted by extremists.

An activist said on Thursday the Christian pastor, also accused of blasphemy, was killed in the same incident. But the family said on Friday that Pastor Zafar Bhatti was alive and blamed the misunderstanding on a phone call from the police.

“An official at the police station called and said he was shot and he was dead,” the pastor’s sister, Nasreen Bibi, said.

“He is not even injured. I saw him yesterday after the firing incident in the afternoon. His wife Nawab met him too. We spoke to him for half an hour. He is very much alive.”

The police were not immediately available for comment.

Those accused of blasphemy in Pakistan are often lynched and lawyers in defending those accused of blasphemy cases have frequently been attacked. Judges have been attacked for dismissing cases and many of the accused face years in jail as their trials drag on.

Earlier this year, a prominent human rights lawyer representing an English professor accused of making a blasphemous Facebook post was shot dead after prosecution lawyers had threatened to kill him in front of a judge.

Last week, gunmen shot dead a liberal professor of Islamic law in the southern city of Karachi. The killing followed years of threats from his colleagues and allegations of blasphemy.

Two prominent politicians who suggested reforming the law have been killed, one by his own bodyguard. Another politician who discussed reforming the law on television is now facing blasphemy charges.

(The story corrects to show Christian not killed.)

Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Nick Macfie

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