Pakistan NooseTo be mentally symptomatic is to face execution.

As of Thursday, at least, in Pakistan.

That’s when an elderly British man was handed a death sentence–hanging–for having a religious delusion, a symptom so commonly found in  schizophrenia.

Amnesty International, which has cried foul, is calling for his immediate release.

Pakistan Death Penalty ProtestorsDespite a well-documented history of mental illness, 71 year-old Mohammed Asghar was convicted under Pakistan’s strict anti-blasphemy laws for claiming to be the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.

Defense attorneys parried all questions from the prosecution with records of psychiatric hospital stays.

Prior to his arrest in 2010, Asghar had been treated for grandiose delusions at Edinburgh’s Royal Victoria Hospital and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Asghar also felt that he was being followed by the world media and by operatives reporting to Tony Blair and George Bush because of his opposition to the Iraq war.

This is not out of the ordinary. To many with the disorder, every utterance from the voices is filled with causal, mystical significance.

Asghar was arrested soon after leaving the psychiatric hospital in 2010 after a tenant he was trying to evict had shown Pakistani police several letters in which he’d referred to himself as the Prophet Mohammed from 1400 years ago.

Despite his psychosis, a Pakistani medical board deemed him fit to stand trial.

Amnesty International is calling for the reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws along with his release.

“Mohammad Asghar is now facing the gallows simply for writing a series of letters,” said Polly Truscoitt, Amnesty’s deputy Asia Pacific director. “He does not deserve punishment. No one should be charged on the basis of this sort of conduct.”

His lawyers say they’ll appeal the conviction. The British High Commission in Islamabad is providing assistance.

Pakistan Fifth in Executions

Time, at least, may be on his side. While the death penality is legal in Pakistan, a moratorium in place for six years has 8,000 people waiting on death row. But the moratorium ended six months ago and the government has no plan to renew it.

Pakistan ranks fifth after China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States in executions per capita.

Likening oneself to the Prophet Mohammad is as invidious as it gets in Pakistan, but making religious delusions a capital offense puts any one of Pakistan’s million plus with schizophrenia in jeopardy.

If Pakistanis feel uncomfortable in seeking psychiatric help for schizophrenia in the wake of the Asghar case, it’s sad and ironic that the root of all world religions—shamanism—cared for the mentally disabled with a great deal of respect.

Anthropologists have documented countless cultures where the fury of the mind was taken as a mystic state. Right up until the Spanish Inquisition, the iniquity of punishing the insane was universally recognized.

Who knows why Asghar would claim to be the Prophet? When you observe schizophrenia, as we have for decades, you grow used to statements that defy explanation.

The issue isn’t whether you’re for or against the death penalty here–it’s whether you’re for capital punishment for a victimless offense.

Beyond that, it’s whether the mentally ill are morally culpable for crimes far more harmful than unintentional blasphemy.