THE life sentence for the longest-serving blasphemy prisoner in Pakistan has been changed to death by hanging.
Zafar Bhatti, who is in his fifties, has been in prison in Rawalpindi, north-east Pakistan, for allegedly sending text messages that insulted the mother of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, an accusation that he has always denied (News, 23 July 2021).
The advocacy group Release International says that, in 2012, Mr Bhatti was gathering evidence about Christian persecution when he was accused of sending the defamatory texts. He has always said that the texts were sent from a phone that was not registered in his name.
In May 2017, Mr Bhatti, whom reports describe as a pastor or a charity worker, was given a life sentence. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom says that Mr Bhatti has reportedly been tortured to extract a confession, and has been attacked in prison.
Having been held since July 2012, Mr Bhatti has now spent more time in prison than Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of five who was imprisoned for nine years for blasphemy. Her death sentence caused an international outcry, which led to her acquittal in 2018 by the Pakistan Supreme Court. She was subsequently permitted to accept an offer of asylum abroad.
An appeal against his conviction and life sentence was submitted to the Lahore High Court Bench, in Rawalpindi. A statement from the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), one of the charities supporting Mr Bhatti’s family, noted that the case had been transferred to different judges at least four times. In October, a High Court judge, Abdul Aziz, heard Mr Bhatti’s case and referred it back to the District Court, calling for a review of the earlier sentence on the grounds that section 295C of Pakistan’s Penal Code made the death sentence mandatory.
The British Asian Christian Association (BACA) has been representing Mr Bhatti at the latest hearings, which took place before Judge Sahibzada Naqeeb Shehzad at the District Court in Rawalpindi. BACA reports that, on 16 December its advocate, Naseeb Anjum, listed questions about Mr Bhatti’s conviction. Judge Shehzad accepted that the questions were “weighty”, and asked the opposing advocate for answers at the next hearing. This raised hopes among Mr Bhatti’s supporters.
On 24 December, however, the opposing advocate, Muhammad Yasir, reminded the judge that the hearing was simply about the severity of the punishment, not whether the original conviction was correct. Judge Shehzad agreed, and on 3 January pronounced the death penalty.
Mr Bhatti’s wife, Nawab Bibi, told BACA that she had been broken by the judge’s decision. “Bhatti is innocent. He was framed,” she said, and requested prayers for her husband.
On Monday, Release International expressed concerns for Mr Bhatti’ health, reporting that he “has had two heart attacks, [and] is suffering from diabetes, a cataract, and partial deafness”.
The director of CLAAS-UK, Nasir Saeed, said after the 3 January verdict that Pakistan’s blasphemy law was “frequently misused . . . in personal conflicts, to target religious minorities and to oppress political opponents or critical voices”. He accused the Pakistani government of exacerbating “religious divides and thus creating a climate of religious intolerance”.
Juliet Chowdhry, a trustee of BACA, said last week: “Today’s decision is serious — Zafar can now become the first person killed under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. The courts, the police, the government all seem hell-bent on killing an innocent Christian to appease Muslims who are still incensed at the freedom of Asia Bibi.”