Zafar Bhatti’s life term was converted into a death sentence in Rawalpindi. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court granted bail to another Christian accused of blasphemy.
by Marco Respinti
Yet another Christian had been sentenced to death in Pakistan on charges of blasphemy. Zafar Bhatti, 56, was in jail since 2012, accused of having sent text messages offensive to Islam.
In 2017, Bhatti was sentenced to life in jail (which in Pakistan in fact corresponds to a 25-year term). When his lawyer tried to obtain bail and argue against the conviction, Judge Sahibzada Naqeeb of the Rawalpindi Court on January 3 took the opportunity for converting the life sentence into the death penalty. The judge argued that the new text of Section 295-C of Pakistan blasphemy laws now only includes death penalty as punishment.
Bitter Winter has been told that within the local Christian community itself there is some criticism of Bhatti’s lawyer, who should have taken his case to the Supreme Court rather than seeking bail or contesting the conviction before the Rawalpindi Court.
In general, blasphemy is regarded as a non-bailable offence, as is the case in Pakistani law for those punished with the death penalty. However, courts have occasionally bailed suspects of blasphemy. The Supreme Court never did it, but on January 6, just three days after Bhatti’s conviction, it issued a historical decision granting bail to Nadeem Samson, a Christian accusing of having posted blasphemous anti-Islamic content on Facebook.
The legal rationale for granting bail to Samson, who was accused of a non-bailable capital offence, was a Pakistani procedural norm that allows for bailing suspects of capital crimes when the trial has not been concluded within two years and the suspect’s defense was not responsible for the delay. The Supreme Court found that Samson had been in jail for four years, and the defense had not adopted any dilatory tactic and in fact had insisted for an early trial date.
Samson is now free, although not finally acquitted of the charge, while Bhatti remains in jail, destined to execution unless the Supreme Court intervenes. Poor lawyering may have a responsibility in Bhatti’s case. However, this does not excuse the Pakistani authorities who maintain in their laws the death penalty for blasphemy, nor the biased judges that in cases of blasphemy easily accept trumped up charges.
Once again, the international community should intervene, and tell Pakistan that Bhatti’s execution would not be tolerated.