Zafar Bhatti is 56 years old, and ten of these years were spent behind the bars of Adiala Prison in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Bhatti is a Christian and a Protestant pastor, so it is not surprising that the charge against him is that of blasphemy. In particular, the man, who is on the online list of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) of detainees for religious reasons, according to an anonymous informant, sent offensive text messages against the mother of the Prophet Mohammed from a cell phone, which was later found not to be his.
In any case, since 2012, Pastor Bhatti, who is diabetic and suffers from heart disease, has been in jail, and there has been no shortage of torture to get him to confess, an attempt to poison him in 2013, and an attack carried out in 2014 by a prison guard on “divine inspiration,” in which he was left for dead.
Not only did the police allegedly torture the pastor, but also the Muslim prisoners in Adiala, to get him to convert to Islam.
Bhatti was sentenced to life in prison on May 3, 2017 under Articles 295-a and 295-c of the Pakistan Penal Code for dishonoring the Prophet Muhammad and his mother. Numerous appeals to the country’s High Court filed by the defense have been repeatedly postponed, as evidenced by the report prepared by USCIRF, and on January 3 came the death sentence by the district court, to which the Lahore High Court referred Bhatti’s case last October. Lawyers for the British Asian Christian Association, which has been representing the cleric since December, plan to appeal the verdict.
The dark points of the story are numerous. First of all, the SIM card of the cell phone from which the incriminated text messages were allegedly sent was not in Bhatti’s name, but that of a Muslim colleague, Ghazala Khan, who was tried in 2013, also for blasphemy, and then released on bail. Christians accused of blasphemous acts can hardly enjoy such a concession in Pakistan.
The denunciation of the existence of such messages, moreover, at first directed against anonymous, was presented at the time by a local Muslim religious leader, who threatened to take the law into his own hands with his own organization if a culprit was not found and he was not convicted precisely under Article 295-c of the Code. This is not a quibble, since Article 295-a does not provide for a death sentence, as does 295-c. With an aggravating circumstance: offenses against the Prophet’s mother, according to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, would not fall under Article c, but under Article a.
Everything points to a real persecution of a religious nature against the Protestant pastor, who “[…] before his arrest sold medicines and often went from door to door with his presentation, reading the Bible and praying with families in the homes he visited” and had also founded a small NGO to assist the poor called Jesus World Mission. And that it is persecution is also suggested by the words of Ilyas Samuel, Christian activist for human rights, who shows dismay for the death sentence of Zafar Bhatti, called “unjustified”, and says: “It is sad to hear this news. I am sorry that the misuse of blasphemy laws has become so common that it is being exercised as a tool of revenge against innocent people.”
The bail obtained on January 5 by Nadeem Samson, another Pakistani citizen of the Christian religion charged under the blasphemy law in November 2017, while showing a glimmer of justice, only reconfirms the persecutory use of that law.
Joseph Jansen, president of Voice for Justice, a human rights organization, said: “We are happy to have obtained bail for Nadeem Samson. In fact, the dispute with the complainant was over money and property issues. Most blasphemy cases are based on false accusations, following family quarrels or religious prejudices”.
In the note released to Fides Agency, Muslim lawyer Saif-ul-Malook, Nadeem Samson’s attorney and former defender of Asia Bibi, said, “This is a historic decision by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. This judgment will serve as a precedent to help other victims of blasphemy charges. Pakistani courts routinely dismiss bail appeals for victims of the blasphemy law, particularly when the charges relate to Article 295(c). We credit Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah of the Supreme Court of Pakistan for not letting religious bias deter him from exercising justice.”