Pakistan is among the countries where blasphemy is punishable by death. In many instances, the accused are killed by mobs before legal proceedings even begin. Often, it is people with mental illness and members of religious minorities who end up being accused of blasphemy.
The international community must do more
Aasia Bibi, who was sent to death row in 2010, was released after nine years by order of the Pakistan supreme court. Hard-line group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) appealed for a review of the ruling. But when the court rejected this and upheld her acquittal, she was moved to a safe country where she remains to this day.
Aasia was fortunate; her case captured international media attention and support from non-governmental organisations, and governments like Italy, Spain and France offered her sanctuary, but there are still many languishing in Pakistani prisons.
Zafar Bhatti, 58, is one of them. He has been sentenced to death by the Pakistan session court of Rawalpindi after being charged with blasphemy in 2012.
He is accused of sending blasphemous text messages from his phone but has always denied the allegation against him. He is the longest serving convicted blasphemy prisoner. Since last October, he has been on death row. In September 2020, Bhatti suffered a heart attack in prison – because of swift medical attention his condition was stabilised, but there are ongoing concerns for his physical and mental health.
Misuse of the law is widespread in Pakistan
Lynching and vigilante justice has become an everyday phenomenon in Pakistan. Because of support from hard-liner religious groups, criminals are encouraged and continue to kill innocent people with impunity. Those who take the law into their own hands are considered heroes. Take, for example, the tragic murder of former governor of Punjab Salman Taseer in 2011, killed by his own bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri. Every time Qadri would attend a court hearing, people would shower rose petals on him. Qadri proudly admitted his crime, stating that he was not guilty because he had committed the murder of an apostate. He argued that the victim had exposed himself as a sympathiser of a blasphemer, Aasia Bibi. Furthermore, Qadri considered his actions were justified because governor Taseer had criticised Pakistan’s blasphemy law. He alleged that these actions were a violation of section 295-C of the Pakistan penal code (PPC), a capital offense. In recent years, several prisoners have been freed, such as Sawan Maish, who was released after 8 years in jail, Imran Ghafur Masih after 11 years, Emmanuel and Shagufta after 8 years, and Sajid Masih after 10 years’ imprisonment. But there are thousands more who remain behind bars.