Pakistani pastor Zafar Bhatti (56) 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.
LATEST NEWS (March 2019): In early March Zafar’s appeal hearing was postponed until 21 March, but it did not take place because of a lawyers’ strike in Rawalpindi, and was postponed again until 11 April.
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 the holder of a different Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC), his colleague Ghazala Khan. In November 2012, she 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. He is waiting for his appeal to be heard.
In prison, Zafar has experienced pressure from Muslim prisoners to convert to Islam, and has been beaten several times. On 31 March 2013, his food was poisoned, which caused bleeding from the nose and mouth and left him in a critical condition for days. He is kept in high security and is not allowed out of his cell, where he has remained for six years. For security reasons, court proceedings have been carried out by the judge in the cell.
Zafar has developed diabetes since being imprisoned and experiences heart pain and headaches. He feels great sadness over the years he has lost.
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 attacked, 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.
Zafar and his wife Nawab (70) do not have any children. In May 2017, Nawab 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.”
Nawab lives alone and visits Zafar weekly. She was working as a domestic cleaner in three homes owned by a man who reportedly treated her “like an animal” until she developed double pneumonia and had to be hospitalised. The BCPA supported her through her illness and when she was released from hospital took her to a safe house and supported her recovery.
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.
December 2018 On 18 December, Release International reported that Zafar’s appeal hearing had been adjourned the previous week.
January 2019 The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Development stated that Zafar’s appeal would be heard on 12 February 2019.
12 February 2019 Zafar’s appeal hearing was postponed until 5 March 2019.
5 March 2019 Zafar’s appeal hearing was postponed again, until 21 March 2019.
21 March 2019 Zafar’s appeal hearing did not take place because of a lawyers’ strike in Rawalpindi. It was rescheduled for 11 April.
(Asia News/Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement/British Pakistani Christians/Morning Star News/Release International/Voice of the Persecuted/Voice Society)