PAKISTAN: Delays and disappointment for Zafar Bhatti

Saiful Malook with Nawab BibiLast week brought the latest legal setback for Zafar Bhatti, Pakistan’s longest-serving prisoner under the blasphemy laws.  On 10 January his lawyer Saiful Malook was informed that the High Court in Rawalpindi had cancelled the appeal hearing scheduled for the following day.

Zafar (61) has been in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Central Jail since July 2012, when he was charged with sending blasphemous text messages. He has spent almost twelve years in solitary confinement and in January 2022 he was sentenced to death.

Saiful Malook (pictured, with Zafar’s wife Nawab Bibi) took up Zafar’s appeal in August 2022, saying “We have a very strong case.” He secured the acquittal of Asia Bibi in October 2018 and Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel in June 2021.

Amid widespread hopes that Mr Malook would secure Zafar’s acquittal and release, the High Court Bench in Rawalpindi did not schedule the first hearing until 9 March 2023, citing a backlog of cases. The day before the hearing Mr Malook received a cancellation call from the court, without any reason given.

A hearing scheduled for 5 October was cancelled when Judge Sadaqat Ali Khan refused to proceed, citing unread case files.

On 8 January 2024 Mr Malook announced that the hearing had been set for 11 January. Nawab was reportedly elated by the news, hoping for her husband’s imminent release, but on 10 January the court once again cancelled the hearing and she was plunged back into despair.

Judge Sadaqat Ali Khan’s cancellation order, without apparent cause, shocked legal observers and reportedly left Mr Malook bewildered following months of preparation. While he expressed his shock, he noted that such practices in Pakistani courts are not new.

On 11 January a team from British Asian Christian Association (BACA) visited Zafar to bring groceries and medicines, for which he expressed gratitude. BACA facilitates regular supplies for Zafar including toiletries, food and clothes.

Nawab Bibi in hospitalNawab is now a frail 75-year-old and her health has declined further since learning of the latest hearing cancellation. Despite regular medication her blood pressure remains uncontrolled and on 15 January BACA officers took her to hospital due to severe headaches and muscle pains. With a blood pressure reading of 190/110, doctors prescribed medication and advised complete rest for her recovery.

(British Asian Christian Association)