Zafar Bhatti

Name: Zafar Bhatti

Country/Area of Origin: Pakistan

Background: Zafar Bhatti is a Pakistani Christian man from Rawalpindi. Prior to his prolonged detention, Bhatti sold medicines and spread the Gospel door-to-door in his community; he also established an NGO “Jesus World Mission” which aimed to help those in poverty.

Reason for Arrest:

In July 2012, a local Islamic leader Ibrar Ahmed Khan visited New Town Police Station in Rawalpindi, where he filed a complaint claiming that he had been receiving blasphemous text messages from an unregistered phone number. Khan urged authorities to open an investigation, and police eventually registered case FIR No. 526/12 and arrested Zafar Bhatti on 23 July despite his having zero visible connection to the ‘crime’. The FIR alleged that Bhatti had violated Section 295-C of Pakistan’s Penal Code which stipulates that “whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

During his initial time in police custody, Bhatti was physically assaulted and tortured by authorities in an attempt to extract a confession, however Bhatti steadfastly proclaimed his innocence. Numerous dubious details have weakened the case against Bhatti: for one, the SIM card of the phone sending the blasphemous text messages was traced to another individual rather than Bhatti. Regardless, officials sent him to Adiala Jail Rawalpindi.

Bhatti spend five years awaiting his trial, which took place in May 2017. There are few released details regarding the trial other than that it took place inside the prison “because of security threats.” Additional District and Session Judge Mohammad Yar charged Bhatti with committing blasphemy and sentenced him to life in prison. During his time in prison carrying out his sentence, Bhatti has been pressured by fellow Muslim inmates to renounce his faith and convert to Islam, but he has repeatedly resisted. Bhatti has also developed heart disease and diabetes.

Centre for Legal Aid Assistance & Settlement (CLAAS), based in Pakistan, has provided Bhatti with legal counsel throughout his case, as many lawyers in Pakistan are reluctant to work with blasphemy case defendants. CLAAS filed an appeal against Bhatti’s sentence in May 2017 directly following the trial decision, however the court has been reluctant to hear the appeal and has postponed hearing dates multiple times:

“The refusal of Honourable Judge and delay in providing justice can cause irreparable loss to the liberty of condemned prisoner and sheer violation of article 10-A of constitution of Pakistan which granted fair trial of a person. […] The reason behind the refusal is that after the acquittal of Asia Bibi a countrywide protest was made by the Muslim religious organizations in which numbers of invaders vandalized and ransacked the public property and created panic among the society. CLAAS is of the view that due to the pressure of religious fanatic groups the courts are hesitant to decide the blasphemy cases and always try to shift their burden by making lame excuses and adjourn the cases without hearing the arguments.”

Latest Updates:

  • On 3 January 2022, with raised hopes of full acquittal, BACA’s team and Bhatti’s wife Nawab Bibi visited the Rawalpindi Court to hear Judge Shehzad’s decision, but she informed them that the ruling would be announced at 11PM in Adiala Jail in front of Bhatti rather than in the court room. The following day, BACA and Nawab Bibi returned to Rawalpindi District Court where they learned that Judge Shehzad sentenced Bhatti to death for alleged blasphemy. Nawab has been inconsolable since as she is worried that her husband may actually be killed to carry out the sentence.
    • Nawab stated the following: “I was broken by yesterday’s court decision. I could not stop crying and praying; it was hard to take. I returned home empty-handed. real criminals are getting bails but our biased courts are still refusing to release Zafar.”
    • One of Bhatti’s legal advocates, Mr. Naseem Anjum, stated the following: “I was very much hopeful for the release of Zafar Bhatti. The judge has contradicted her own previous judgement awarded to Zafar Bhatti. She is not convinced of the penalty of death for Zafar Bhatti but has followed the directions of the High Court. I have met Zafar Bhatti in jail and have explained the current situation of his case. 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 judgement. Zafar has signed the documents required to apply for an appeal against his judgement and a second one so we can appeal the original conviction. On Thursday, I shall go to Rawalpindi and submit his appeal in the High Court and will take the time to meet our brother and pray with him in jail also.”
    • Juliet Chowdhry of BACA explained: “Pakistani courts continue to free murderers and rapists from jail especially those who pay a compromise payment. However, they have repeatedly refused Zafar bail or an acquittal when no evidence exists of a crime. The amount of hatred that has been generated against Zafar by extremists means he does not have to attend court hearings as the state could not protect him. Today’s decision is serious – Zafar can now become the first person killed under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. The courts, the police [and] the Government all seem hell-bent on killing an innocent Christian to appease Muslims who are still incensed at the freedom of Asia Bibi. Sadly the universal global condemnation by international governments concerned about Asia Bibi has not manifested in the same way for brother Zafar. Unless a concerted effort similar to that which manifested for Asia Bibi is begun in the west, we are looking at a very dire outcome.
  • 20 December 2021: British Asian Christian Association (BACA) has also been working on Bhatti’s case, and explained that on 16 December the Rawalpindi Sessions Court Judge Sahibzada Naqeeb Shehzad heard BACA’s arguments for Bhatti’s acquittal, including the following:
    • “No forensic report of alleged blasphemous text messages has been exhibited in court.”
    • “In the original crime report the investigating officer has recorded that when he recovered the alleged phone from Zafar Bhatti he did not find any blasphemous messages on it.”
    • “Zafar Bhatti in his statement under section 142 has recorded that Christianity does not preach and teach to insult the prophets of the other nations. He has always refuted the accusations made against him.”
    • “The only message content exhibited in court is a plain image of some blasphemous words devoid of any date or time.”
    • “No eyewitnesses have been produced at court from the outset of this case. The only witnesses for the alleged blasphemous messages were the employees of Imam Muhammad Ibrar Ahmad Khan, they have both declared they saw it and that it was too blasphemous for them to read the whole message so they turned away. We suspect that the reason they cannot remember the content of blasphemous messages was because they were never really seen and that turning away was simply a way to hide this fact from investigators.”
    • **Judge Shehzad had a favorable reaction to the arguments presented and explained that they “should be answered by the complainant counsel”. BACA is increasingly confident that a lack of evidence may lead to Bhatti’s long overdue acquittal.
  • 26 November 2021: CLAAS announced they have recently filed an appeal in the Supreme Court of Pakistan against Lahore High Court Rawalpindi Bench, Rawalpindi Judicial Department, and made the following remarks:
    • “Nine years as a Christian in a Pakistani prison and getting life imprisonment for something one has not done must be a strain that no one can imagine. Yet Zafar Bhatti has not lost faith in a loving God seeking justice! We kindly request that you please remember Zafar Bhatti in your regular prayers, pray for the CLAAS lawyer who proceeds the case in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, and also for the judge who will hear the case so that they can decide the case on merit”.
  • 4 October 2021: Mr. Justice Raja Shahid Mahmood Abbasi refused of Lahore High Court Rawalpindi Bench “refused to hear the appeal as he had already refused in 2019” and referred Bhatti’s case to a lower court. CLAAS reports the following:
    • “The appeal was fixed before another Judge of the High Court who remanded the case to the trial court with the direction to re-write the judgement as in his opinion the accused Zafar Bhatti is handed down the guilty verdict under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code and is awarded imprisonment for life which is not in consonance with the law as a necessary consequence and according to his observations the punishment of life imprisonment in respect of section 295-C PPC ceased to have effect. The only legal sentence which can be imposed in an offense under Section 295-C PPC is [the] death sentence”.
  • Zafar Bhatti’s appeal hearing has been postponed a total of 27 times:
    • 21 September 2021: Bhatti’s appeal hearing was postponed as the complainants asked for adjournment. The new hearing date is 4 October.
    • 7 September 2021: Bhatti’s appeal hearing was postponed to 21 September 2021.
    • 21 June 2021: The Court upholds Bhatti’s life imprisonment sentence, and his lawyers appeal again.
    • 15 April 2021: Judge Sadaqat Ali Khan adjourned the appeal hearing due to absence of a forensic report.
    • 11 March 2021: Bhatti’s case hearing was postponed to 15 April.
    • 23 November 2020: Bhatti’s case hearing was postponed to an unknown later date.
    • 2 November 2020: Bhatti’s bail was dismissed and appeal hearing date was set to 23 November.
    • October 2020: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to 2 November.
    • 10 September 2020: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to October 2020.
    • 7 September 2020: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed three days until 10 September.
    • 25 March 2020: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed due to COVID-19.
    • 10 February 2020: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to 25 March.
    • 29 January 2020: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to 10 February.
    • 21 January 2020: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to 29 January.
    • 16 December 2019: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to 21 January 2020.
    • 14 November 2019: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to 16 December.
    • 10 October 2019: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to an unknown later date.
    • 12 September 2019: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to 10 October.
    • 19 June 2019: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to 12 September.
    • 25 April 2019: The judge concluded that Bhatti should be released due to lack of evidence; however, prosecution asked for an extension on the case to attain evidence. Bhatti’s hearing was adjourned a new date was set for 19 June.
    • 11 April 2019: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to 25 April
    • 21 March 2019: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to 11 April
    • 5 March 2019: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to 21 March
    • 12 February 2019: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to 5 March
    • January 2019: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to 12 February
    • 18 December 2018: Bhatti’s hearing was postponed to January 2019.
  • In early September 2020, Bhatti suffered from his third heart attack in detention (the prior two occurred in 2019). Medical doctors assisted Bhatti and stabilized his condition, and he has since been recovering well.
  • In September 2014, rumors spread that Zafar Bhatti had died of gunshot wounds after being shot by a Pakistani police officer. The rumors were later declared as false.