Pakistani pastor Zafar Bhatti (52) has been in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Central Jail since July 2012, when he was charged with sending blasphemous text messages. On 3 May 2017, Zafar was sentenced to life imprisonment for blasphemy, a charge he denies. The mobile phone in question was not registered to his name.
Before his arrest, Zafar worked selling medicines and often went door-to-door with his presentation, also reading the Bible and praying with families in homes he visited. He founded and led a small NGO called “Jesus World Mission” to assist the poor.
In July 2012, a local Islamic leader filed a complaint at New Town police station, Rawalpindi, saying he had been sent messages from an unregistered number insulting the Prophet Mohammed’s mother. He threatened that his organisation would take matters into its own hands if an investigation for blasphemy were not opened under Section 295-C of the Penal Code – even though insulting the Prophet’s mother falls under Section 295-A. (Section 295-C carries the death penalty; Section 295-A does not.)
A First Incident Report was lodged against an unknown person, but the police later arrested Zafar, charging him under section 295-C. They tortured him to extract a confession, but he insisted on his innocence. Several reports proved that the SIM was not registered to Zafar but was registered to a holder of a different Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC).
In November 2012, the person whose CNIC was registered against the SIM in question, Ghazala Khan, was arrested and charged with blasphemy. At her trial in April 2013, Justice Khalid Mehmood of the Lahore High Court refused to pass judgement against her and instead tried to convince the petitioner Ahmed Khan to forgive her. Ghazala Khan said she was innocent and did not want forgiveness but to be freed on merit. The judge showed her leniency as she was a woman, and granted bail. She died in November 2016 from Hepatitis C, aged 39.
In May 2017, Additional District and Session Judge Mohammad Yar Gondal sentenced Zafar to life in prison. Section 295-C mandates the death sentence, but because there was no evidence against him, he was sentenced to life imprisonment instead.
In prison, Zafar has experienced pressure from Muslim prisoners to convert to Islam, and has been beaten several times. On 31 March 2013, someone poisoned his food, which caused bleeding from the nose and mouth and left him in a critical condition for days.
Reported dead in 2014
On 25 September 2014, mistaken rumours circulated that Bhatti had been killed in his prison cell. It was not Bhatti who been killed, but the prisoner in the adjacent cell, British Muslim Muhammad Asghar (71), who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy. Ashgar, who was arrested in 2010, had a history of mental illness.
Police officer Muhammad Yousaf, who had been deployed to protect Muhammad Asghar, shot him in the chest. The bullet broke two of his ribs and punctured his right lung, but he recovered in hospital. Prison guards arrested Yousaf, who had planned to kill all prison inmates accused of blasphemy.
In May 2017, Zafar’s wife Nawab (65) told the British Pakistani Christian Association (BCPA) that she was very worried because of numerous attempts to kill her husband. She reported that he is bullied everyday and is not safe from inmates or prison staff. She said, “When we meet we cry together and pray seeking God’s intervention,” and added, “Many Muslim people hated how quickly his church was growing. They have taken this action to undermine his work.”
Zafar’s sister Naureen has also spoken of the risk of attack in prison. She said, “My brother has spoken several times of threats received in the cell.”
The BPCA reported that Nawab has struggled to make ends meet since her husband’s arrest and was forced to send her younger children to live with their grandparents as she could not afford to keep them. Nawab’s older daughters were put in arranged marriages at very young ages for financial reasons.
11 July 2012 Ahmed Khan, deputy secretary of the local branch of the Islamic organisation Jamat Ahle-Sunnat, filed a complaint at New Town police station, Rawalpindi, saying he had been sent text messages insulting the Prophet Mohammed’s mother.
22 July 2012 The police arrested Zafar, charging him under Section 295-C of the blasphemy laws.
11 November 2012 Ghazala Khan was arrested and charged with blasphemy in connection with the Zafar Bhatti case – her Computerised National Identity Card was registered against the phone SIM card in question.
8 April 2013 Justice Khalid Mehmood of the Lahore High Court tried Ghazala Khan but refused to pass judgment against her and granted bail. Ghazala died in November 2016.
25 September 2014 Mistaken rumours circulated that Zafar had been killed in his prison cell.
24 April 2017 Zafar’s trial opened. It had to be held in prison because of threats to his life. Judgment was reserved until a later date.
3 May 2017 Additional District and Session Judge Mohammad Yar Gondal sentenced Zafar to life in prison.
(Asia News, Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, British Pakistani Christians, Morning Star News, Voice of the Persecuted, Voice Society)