A Christian pastor accused of blasphemy was shot dead by police in a Pakistani jail in Rawalpindi. A persecution watchdog group has said this is the latest incident of blasphemy laws being used to commit human rights violations.
"This is a barbaric act," Xavier Williams of Life for All told The Express Tribune. "There had been threats. The court should have instructed police to ensure Bhatti's safety."
Zafar Bhatti had been imprisoned at Adiyala jail since 2012, The Express Tribune reported. His 70-year-old cellmate, Muhammad Asghar, who has a history of mental illness, was wounded in the shooting attack. Asghar has also been accused of blasphemy in the heavily Muslim country. The men had been receiving death threats both from guards and fellow prisoners.
International Christian Concern Regional Manager for South Asia, William Stark, said: "This most recent incident involving Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law should once again bring the abuse of this law back into international discussions.
Originally written to protect against religious intolerance, the law has warped into a tool used by extremists and others to settle personal scores and persecute Pakistan's vulnerable religious minorities."
Stark added that Pakistan's minority Christian population is heavily targeted by these blasphemy laws, though the charges are often false.
"Unfortunately, pressure from Islamic radical groups and general discrimination against Christians in Pakistan has transformed trial courts into little more than rubber stamps for blasphemy accusations brought against Christians, regardless of the evidence brought to bear in the case," he continued.
"Also, little is done to ensure the safety of those merely accused of blasphemy, leading to the deaths of at least 48 people, many of whom could have been proven innocent."
In Bhatti's case, the pastor was accused of sending blasphemous text messages to Ahmed Khan, then deputy secretary of Jamaat Ahle Sunnat, a Pakistani Muslim organization. He was arrested on July 16, and was tortured for several days by police after refusing to confess to the allegations.
Back in April, a Christian couple was sentenced to death in Pakistan also for committing blasphemy via text messages. Lawyers for the man and woman appealed the ruling, arguing that both are illiterate and could not have sent the text messages.
"We express our solidarity, but Christians keep a low profile, because life is full of difficulties and dangers, and for us the first commandment is to survive. Christians are afraid and they move with extreme caution," Fr. Aloysius Roy, superior of the Pakistani province of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate said at the time.