By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
Zafar Bhatti, 56, has been incarcerated in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Central Jail since July 2012, when police charged him with sending blasphemous text messages.
His supporters say the pastor’s January 3 death sentence was given despite the mobile phone in question not being registered to his name
“He is now the longest-serving blasphemy victim in Pakistan, having overtaken Asia Bibi [who was released] as Christians continue to have a torrid time in Pakistan,” said the British Asian Christian Association (BACA).
BACA, which took over Bhatti’s case after an appeal was denied, said that Pastor Bhatti was sentenced in May 2017 to life imprisonment for blasphemy, a charge he vehemently denies.
“BACA also inherited a judgment made by Lahore High Court in October calling for the District Court to review their earlier judgment. They sought that Pastor Zafar Bhatti’s sentence be increased from life to death sentence,” the group told Worthy News.
A death sentence is mandatory under section 295C of Pakistan’s Penal Code, under which Pastor Zafar was convicted, trial observers said.
Despite BACA’s arguments not to execute the pastor, Judge Shehzad agreed with the complainant’s sentiments that imprisonment wasn’t enough punishment, Christians said.
BACA said the pastor’s wife Nawab Bibi and a BACA team arrived Monday at the Court in Rawalpindi but were told the sentence would first be announced in Adiala Jail, where the pastor was held for years.
When they returned to the court later in the day, “hearts were broken as Nawab Bibi, and the rest learned first-hand that Judge Shehzad had ruled that a death sentence be imposed on Zafar Bhatti,” BACA said.
“News of the decision broke” Bibi, “who when she got home, became distraught and unable to talk. She cried endlessly, fearful of the potential for her husband Zafar Bhatti to be killed,” BACA added.
Video footage obtained showed the crying woman. In comments received by Worthy News, Bibi said she “was broken by yesterday’s court decision.”
“I could not stop crying and praying. It was hard to take. I returned home empty-handed,” she added. “Real criminals are getting bails, but our biased courts are still refusing to release Zafar.”
Bhatti’s lawyer, Naseeb Anjum, said the judge sentencing his client to death “contradicted his previous judgment awarded to Zafar Bhatti.”
He noted that the judge “is not convinced of the penalty of death for Zafar Bhatti but has followed the directions of the High Court.”
BACA representative Juliet Chowdhry told Worthy News the Court decision was “serious” as the pastor “can now become the first person killed under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.”
He added that “The courts, the police, the Government all seem hell-bent on killing an innocent Christian to appease Muslims who are still incensed at the freedom of Asia Bibi.”
Bibi was released in 2019 when she received asylum in Canada after international condemnation of her death sentence.
“Sadly, the universal global condemnation by international governments concerned about Asia Bibi has not manifested in the same way for brother Zafar Bhatti,” Chowdhry stressed.
“Unless the west begins a concerted effort similar to that which manifested for Asia Bibi, we are looking at a very dire outcome.”
Several attempts have reportedly been made by authorities to convert Zafar Bhatti to Islam and have him set free on that basis. “Each time Zafar Bhatti has outright refused to quit his faith” in Christ, BACA noted.
“I have met Zafar Bhatti in jail and have explained the current situation of his case,” added Bhatti’s lawyer Anjum. “Zafar Bhatti has confided in me and has said he is willing to face the worst.
He knows he is innocent, and God will have the final judgment.”
He said the pastor “signed the documents required to apply for an appeal against this judgment and a second one so we can appeal the original conviction.”
In comments shared with Worthy News, the lawyer said he would submit Bhatti’s appeal in the High Court on Thursday. “And I will take the time to meet our brother and pray with him in jail.”
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