Pakistani pastor Zafar Bhatti (57) 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. Zafar’s appeal hearings have been adjourned repeatedly, but rather than being acquitted he was sentenced to death on 3 January 2022.
LATEST NEWS (March 2023): On 8 March Lawyer Saiful Malook told the operations manager of British Asian Christian Association that he had received a call from the High Court Bench Rawalpindi cancelling Zafar’s hearing, which was scheduled for the following day, without any reason. He said in a video message, “It’s outrageous that an innocent person has been detained in jail for twelve years, while his appeals are being ignored… I travelled to Rawalpindi to see the court registrar who told me that… this appeal was filed in 2022 and [currently] appeals filed in 2021 were being opened. It seems he has taken the file to a senior judge; following usual process but the judge then refused it.” Mr Malook added, “The issue according to my experience is that no judge wants to hear blasphemy appeals.”
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. Zafar’s appeal hearings were adjourned repeatedly, but in October 2021 Lahore High Court referred the case back to the lower court, and in January 2022 Zafar was sentenced to death.
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. For security reasons, court proceedings have been carried out by the judge in the cell.
Zafar has developed diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, headaches and problems with his eyesight since being imprisoned. He is also suffering from depression and 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 (72) do not have any children. Nawab’s health is deteriorating and in March 2023 she moved from Islamabad to Lahore, where accommodation was arranged for her in the majority-Christian Youhanabad area. This means she can no longer visit Zafar every Thursday with food and medicine, as she used to do, and can only visit him once a month. In April 2023 Nawab told a team from Lahore Evangelical Ministries that since Zafar’s second heart attack in prison he has been “more in depression and disappointed”.
At one point Nawab worked as a cleaner in three homes owned by a man who reportedly treated her “like an animal” until she developed double pneumonia early in 2019 and had to be hospitalised. While she eventually recovered from pneumonia, her general health is now very poor and she needs much support.
In May 2017, Nawab told the BACA that she was very worried because of numerous attempts to kill her husband. She reported that he was bullied every day and was 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 and said, “My brother has spoken several times of threats received in the cell.”
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 Settlement 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.
11 April 2019 Zafar’s appeal was heard and the judge said that he was minded to release him but would announce the verdict on 25 April.
25 April 2019 At the court hearing, the judge said that there was no evidence against Zafar and that he should be released. The prosecution lawyer said the prosecution needed more time to provide evidence, to which the judge responded that such evidence must be produced within two hours. However, the police superintendent intervened to say that the police also needed time to produce evidence.
The judge said that he wanted to release Zafar but granted an adjournment to 19 June to provide time for the prosecution and the police to produce evidence, the long delay being partly due to Ramadan and Eid taking up the month of May.
Mehwish Bhatti of the BACA visited Zafar in prison on 25 April and reported that he was feeling somewhat better. His diabetes is under some level of control but is not helped by the stress he feels. Mehwish said that Zafar seemed encouraged by the report of the appeal hearing.
19 June 2019 Zafar’s appeal hearing was adjourned for the seventh time. On this occasion, it was stated that it was because the presiding judge was due to go on holiday. It is understood that if he had acquitted Zafar, the supplementary documentation requiring his approval could have interfered with his holiday plans. The court set 12 September as the date for the next hearing.
12 September 2019 Zafar’s appeal hearing was adjourned for the eighth time. The judge said that “the decision has been made and everything is prepared” but adjourned the case and would not listen to arguments. The court set 10 October as the date for the next hearing.
10 October 2019 At Zafar’s appeal hearing, the judge said he would not rule and transferred the case to another court. No date was set for a hearing.
14 November 2019 A date of 16 December 2019 was set for Zafar’s appeal hearing.
16 December 2019 The judge refused to hear Zafar’s case because of a lawyers’ strike in Punjab province, even though Zafar’s lawyer was present. A new date of 21 January 2020 was set. Zafar’s doctor has said he is in danger of suffering a heart attack – he had two minor attacks recently and the doctor says a third could kill him. Zafar’s eyesight is reported to be deteriorating due to the dim light in his cell.
21 January 2020 Zafar’s appeal hearing was postponed again due to the prosecution submitting an application to the Federal Investigation Agency for a detailed inquiry into the messages in question. A new date of 29 January was set. Zafar and his wife Nawab were reported to be very anxious about the delay.
29 January 2020 Zafar’s appeal hearing was postponed again. A new date of 10 February was set.
10 February 2020 Zafar’s appeal hearing was postponed again. A new date of 25 March was set.
25 March 2020 Zafar’s appeal hearing was postponed because of the Covid-19 coronavirus.
3 September 2020 Zafar suffered a heart attack in prison. He received swift medical attention to stabilise his condition but his lawyers called on the Lahore High Court (Rawalpindi Bench) to grant immediate bail on medical grounds.
7 September 2020 An appeal hearing was due to be held on 7 September 2020 but was postponed for three days and rescheduled for 10 September.
10 September 2020 Following a brief hearing at Lahore High Court, the Rawalpindi Bench instructed the local police superintendent to commission a medical report. Zafar’s lawyer later met the superintendent and was allowed to visit Zafar in prison. The lawyer reported that he was encouraged by the outcome of the hearing and by his visit.
October 2020 Zafar’s court hearing was scheduled for 2 November 2020.
2 November 2020 Zafar’s appeal for bail on health grounds was dismissed and 23 November was set for the final hearing of his case.
23 November 2020 The judge did not hear Zafar’s case and no new date was set.
11 March 2021 Zafar’s case hearing was scheduled for final arguments but was adjourned because of an incomplete forensic report. The hearing was rescheduled for 15 April.
15 April 2021 Zafar’s lawyer appeared before the High Court Bench at Rawalpindi, but Judge Sadaqat Ali Khan adjourned the hearing because a forensic report was still awaited.
June 2021 Zafar was reported to need cataract surgery and Nawab needed physiotherapy following a fall. Church in Chains planned to send money to pay for these treatments.
15 June 2021 A judge visited Zafar in prison to preside at the latest appeal hearing. The judge did not give a verdict but said that it would be announced on Saturday 19 June.
21 June 2021 The verdict was announced, with the judge upholding Zafar’s life sentence. His lawyers will appeal to the High Court.
7 September 2021 Zafar’s appeal was due to be heard but the judge rescheduled the hearing for 21 September.
21 September 2021 Zafar’s hearing was cancelled yet again, and a new hearing date of 4 October was set.
4 October 2021 Zafar’s hearing was cancelled because the judge retired from the case, which will be transferred to another judge.
14 October 2021 The new judge did not grant bail, as had been hoped, but fixed the date of 18 October to hear the appeal.
18 October 2021 Instead of hearing Zafar’s case, the judge at the Rawalpindi bench of Lahore High Court referred it to a lower court, the Rawalpindi Sessions Court.
16 December 2021 At a hearing of Rawalpindi District Court, Zafar’s lawyer Naseeb Anjum submitted evidence of his innocence, which the judge indicated he found to be “weighty”, leading to hope that Zafar would receive a favourable decision.
24 December 2021 A prosecution lawyer made a submission at a hearing of Rawalpindi District Court that the correct punishment for blasphemy was death rather than life imprisonment.
3 January 2022 Judge Shehzad of Rawalpindi District Court ruled that a death sentence be imposed on Zafar. Lawyers plan to appeal the verdict.
4 March 2022 Zafar’s lawyer applied for bail on medical grounds in the high court. A bail hearing was held and the judge ordered information on Zafar’s condition from the prison, but the application was rejected.
12 May 2022 Nawab and a team from BACA visited him in prison to bring groceries, money for insulin and toiletries, and were upset to find that his medical condition had deteriorated. His eyesight had weakened significantly and his left leg had swollen from the foot to the top of the thigh. The swelling reportedly began after prison medical staff gave Zafar tablets for diabetes and then for abdominal pain and vomiting.
July 2022 The British Asian Christian Association reported that Zafar had surgery on his right foot to remove a large pus-filled infection that had arisen and grown rapidly due to numbness in his foot induced by diabetic neuropathy, a condition that meant he did not feel the infection. Zafar said: “Doctors have told me that if the wound had not been operated on they would have had to remove my foot. Living in this cell has left me prone to so many illnesses and conditions.”
November 2022 Lawyer Saiful Malook confirmed on Twitter that he had taken up Zafar’s case (in August 2022) and filed an application for bail at the office of the court registrar in Rawalpindi. After taking it up, Mr Malook said, “We have a very strong case.” He is the lawyer who secured the acquittal of Asia Bibi in October 2018 and Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel in June 2021.
8 March 2023 Lawyer Saiful Malook told the operations manager of British Asian Christian Association that he had received a call from the High Court Bench Rawalpindi cancelling Zafar’s hearing, which was scheduled for 9 March, without any reason. He said in a video message, “It’s outrageous that an innocent person has been detained in jail for twelve years, while his appeals are being ignored… I travelled to Rawalpindi to see the court registrar who told me that… this appeal was filed in 2022 and [currently] appeals filed in 2021 were being opened. It seems he has taken the file to a senior judge; following usual process but the judge then refused it… Mr Malook added, “The issue according to my experience is that no judge wants to hear blasphemy appeals.”
(Asia News, Barnabas Fund, British Asian Christian Association, Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, Lahore Evangelical Ministries, Morning Star News, Release International, Voice of the Persecuted, Voice Society)