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Blasphemy death sentence on a Christian that shames Pakistan

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YET another Pakistani Christian has been sentenced to death under the country’s blasphemy laws. This is the latest stage of a long and trying story.

In July 2012 Pastor Zafar Bhatti was imprisoned in Rawalpindi’s Adyala Central Jail. The charge against him was sending blasphemous text messages. The 56-year-old is still incarcerated awaiting execution. He is now the longest-serving victim of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. He has been in prison longer than Asia Bibi, who spent nine years in a cell, much of it also under threat of death.

As well as conducting regular Sunday services from his home and running the occasional outreach concert, Pastor Zafar founded and led Jesus World Mission, a small NGO whose purpose was to assist the poor. His Christian work often involved him travelling door to door to read the Bible and pray with families in their homes.

The pastor’s wife Nawab Bibi thinks that ‘many Muslim people hated how quickly his church was growing. They have taken this action to undermine his work’. To be a Christian in Pakistan, especially an openly active one, entails risk.

In July 2012, Ibrar Ahmed Khan, deputy secretary of a branch of the Islamic organisation Jamaat Ahle Sunnat, filed a complaint at New Town police station, Rawalpindi, claiming he had been sent text messages in English, insulting the prophet Muhammad and his mother. Khan threatened that if an investigation for blasphemy were not opened under the Pakistan Penal Code, he would take matters into its own hands via his followers and execute mob justice.

A First Incident Report was initially lodged against an unknown person as it was unclear to whom the phone belonged. However, the police later arrested Pastor Zafar, who does not speak English, and charged him with blasphemy, which he vehemently denies. He claims the police tortured him to extract a confession, but he maintained his innocence.

In prison, the pastor experienced considerable pressure from Muslim prisoners to convert to Islam, and has been beaten up on several occasions. On March 31, 2013, his food was poisoned, leaving him in a critical condition. His Bible has been impounded, denying him spiritual sustenance.

Eventually, after the numerous delays and postponements which are normal in the Pakistani justice system, Pastor Zafar was sentenced on May 3, 2017. Although Section 295-C of the Pakistani Penal Code mandates the death sentence, because there was no solid evidence against him he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

He has been kept under high security during the appeals process, and was not allowed out of his cell. For security reasons, court proceedings have been carried out in his cell. Trials in prison cells are an increasingly common phenomenon in Pakistan owing to the heightened levels of intolerance in the country.

On December 16, 2021, Pastor Zafar’s new advocate Naseeb Anjum, provided by the British Asian Christian Association, raised serious questions concerning the conviction. The judge said the questions were weighty and asked for answers to them to be submitted at a further hearing. This gave some hope for leniency.

The complainant’s counsel, Muhammad Yasir, did not address the arguments but simply reminded the judge that the hearing was focused on the severity of the punishment and not the conviction itself, which he argued had already been deliberated on at length. The judge agreed and on January 3 ruled that the sentence of life imprisonment should be increased to a death sentence.

It is difficult to discern any justice in the way this case has been tried. No forensic report of the alleged blasphemous text messages has been exhibited in court. Neither the accused or the complainant’s phones was examined forensically.

In the original crime report the investigating officer recorded that when he recovered the alleged phone from Pastor Zafar he did not find any blasphemous message on it. As the pastor cannot speak English, it is doubtful that if such texts existed he could have written them. The only message content exhibited in court was a plain image of some blasphemous words devoid of any date or time. As time, date and sender information is characteristic of Android phones it has to be asked why such information was not made available to the court.

The phone was given to Zafar by a female colleague named Ghazala Khan after the text had been sent. She too was arrested for blasphemy in November 2012, but was released because she was a woman. It is believed that the text was sent by a jealous colleague. Ghazala Khan has since died.

As a security measure in Pakistan SIM cards have to be activated by voice. The Jazz telephone company has confirmed that it was not Zafar’s voice which activated the SIM card. This has been confirmed by both investigating police officers and the courts.

There are legal provisions under humanitarian grounds that allow for prisoners with severe illness to be granted bail and several high-profile Muslims have been released on that basis. Applications from Pastor Zafar have been denied several times despite his failing health including severe diabetes and a heart attack last year.

The case against him is so tenuous that the entire proceeding brings shame on Pakistan. Juliet Chowdhry, trustee for the British Asian Christian Association, said: ‘Zafar’s life is in the balance for a crime he did not commit and for which the most flimsy evidence has been used to implicate him.’ His wife said: ‘He and I have few years left on this earth and hope God grants us some more time together.’

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Dr Campbell Campbell-Jackhttp://www.agrainofsand.co.uk/
Campbell is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Stirlingshire.

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