In God’s NameJulia Bicknell May/June 2022
Three decades ago, a BBC journalist reporting from Pakistan was appalled by the violence she saw directed against religious minorities—violence fueled by laws against blasphemy. Today, as cofounder of an international organization that tracks religious persecution, she explains how these laws continue to exact their brutal toll.
You haven’t seen your children for eight years. All that time, you’ve been imprisoned in a small, hot, smelly cell. Your husband is in another prison hundreds of miles away, convicted of the same serious crime as you have been. In fact, you’re on death row. Every time the rusty bolt of your cell door rattles, your heart stops. Maybe this is the moment when they will come to take you out and hang you. And yet you know that you’re innocent and your husband is too. It’s blatantly unjust that your family has been torn apart and your husband—who’s in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down—is suffering terribly because of the prison conditions.
You want to weep. All you can do is pray, as you have done every hour of every day during the past eight years. Pray and hope that your plight is not forgotten outside your prison walls.
This is the experience of a mid-40s mother of four, Shaguftah Kausar, a Pakistani woman I first heard of in 2013. I was already aware of another mother, known around the world as Asia Bibi. She was the utterly innocent victim of Pakistan’s laws against blasphemy—laws that are routinely employed to exact revenge on Christians and other minorities, often for personal disputes over property or land.
Christians comprise about 2 percent of Pakistan’s population but make up about a quarter of the number in prison convicted of “blasphemy.” Innocent mothers like Asia and Shafugtah. And innocent men like Shaguftah’s husband, Shafqat Emmanuel, who—in front of a noisy mob that had crowded into a police station—was dragged out of his wheelchair and thrown to the ground “as if I were a bag,” he says later. He was punched repeatedly in the face and body in front of his children.
Later in the police station he was even hung upside down. When the police threatened that they would parade his wife naked through the streets, Shafqat gave in and “confessed” to sending a “blasphemous” phone text, even though he knew his wife had lost the phone a month before the text was sent.
Shaguftah and Shafqat were finally freed last year and are refugees in Europe.
No Safe Place
To be charged with blasphemy is one of the most terrifying experiences someone could have in Pakistan. Even if there’s not a shred of credible evidence against you, everyone in the legal system risks their own life if they attempt to assist in your case. This is because the charge of blasphemy is such a dangerous and incendiary one. It incites crowds to gather, and even if you are acquitted—as all three that I’ve mentioned were—you are highly likely to be killed later. You may be murdered either by an angry mob who see it as their job to kill you “in the name of Allah” or by a lone individual who believes they are doing God’s will and protecting His honor by killing you. So the lower courts, where these cases start, are usually reluctant to decide them at all out of fear that acquittal will provoke mob violence.
Two sections in Chapter XV of Pakistan’s Penal Code “Of Offences Relating to Religion” specifically address offenses against Islam. Section 295B forbids desecration or “use in any derogatory manner” of the Quran “or of an extract therefrom.” The penalty is a mandatory life sentence. Section 295C forbids insults to “the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.” The minimum penalty is a mandatory life sentence; the maximum is death. In 1990, Pakistan’s Federal Shariah Court ruled that the death penalty should be mandatory.
No one has yet been executed under Section 295C. Most of those convicted are eventually freed on appeal, often to face mob justice. More than 50 people have been murdered in extrajudicial killings. Two prominent Pakistani politicians were assassinated in 2010 after they spoke publicly in defense of Asia Bibi, who’d been convicted under Section 295C. In May 2014 human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman was murdered after he took up the defense of a teacher accused of blasphemy.
But the fact that no one has actually been executed makes little difference to those who spend years on death row. The minute a blasphemy accusation is leveled at you, your fate is sealed; you will never be able to live a normal life again.
Asia Bibi’s case is the most dramatic evidence of that. Even after Pakistan’s Supreme Court finally ruled—after almost 10 years—that she was wrongly convicted by what its judges called a “feast of falsehoods,” crowds whipped up by political and religious leaders still blocked the streets. The mobs provoked a lockdown in the capital, Islamabad, as they chanted for her death. Similar crowds gathered in different cities across the country, undeterred by the words of one of the judges in the case, Justice Asif Khosa, who said that Asia “appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Leare [sic], ‘more sinned against than sinning.’” The political party set up in 2016 for the explicit reason of defending Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the finality of the Prophet Muhammad1 was outraged at Asia Bibi’s acquittal.
The leader of this party ordered his supporters onto the street and threatened Prime Minister Imran Khan—a former international cricket star—calling for his government to be dismantled. This was despite the fact that Khan has himself frequently supported the blasphemy laws. The threat also extended to the Supreme Court judges, with calls for them to be killed, if not by “our workers,” then by their own drivers or bodyguards.
This indeed is what had happened to one of Pakistan’s most senior figures. In 2011 Salman Taseer, then governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, was brutally gunned down by his own personal bodyguard. The governor was murdered simply because he had visited Asia Bibi on death row and had then dared to criticize the way the blasphemy law appeared to be misused against Christians and other minorities such as Ahmadis.
If as prominent a figure as the governor of Punjab is not safe, then anyone who might want to simply reform the law or even defend anyone accused under it risks their own life. That’s why a charge of blasphemy is so dangerous. It feeds into a climate of overwhelming fear that has especially grown since 1986, when the then-military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq—an Islamist—introduced the death penalty into the law that Pakistan had inherited from British colonial rule.
I first reported from Pakistan in the early 1990s for the BBC and the UK Telegraph Media Group. The biggest issue facing religious minorities then was the threatened introduction of the category of “religion” on the ID card citizens were expected to carry. They were terrified this would stigmatize them, depriving them of all sorts of opportunities—from education to jobs to marriage—while also formalizing the second–class citizenship and discriminatory practices they already experienced. Although they won their case then, in 2013 then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif eventually bowed to pressure from Islamic fundamentalists and decreed religion must be listed on the ID card.
Since then, the “card” is now digital and even biometric.
The use of digital social media has also now spread like wildfire in Pakistan, along with smartphones. This, it now seems to me, is the biggest threat to Christians when it comes to false charges of blasphemy. I’m tired of reporting cases in which Christians—often but not always young men, even teenagers—find themselves facing the death penalty simply because someone who holds a personal grudge has managed to plant an image or a “blasphemous” text on their smartphone.
In January 2022, for instance, Nadeem Samson, who’s already been in prison waiting for his blasphemy trial for more than five years, was granted bail by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. This was a first in Pakistan’s judicial history, according to his lawyer.
Samson had got himself into a financial dispute. His defense is that the other disputer enlisted the help of Samson’s cousin (reported to be a police informant), who managed to use Samson’s phone number to create a fake Facebook account to which Samson’s accusers then posted “blasphemous” content. Samson was arrested and tortured so much by the police that he “confessed.”
Shagufta Kausar was also framed by “blasphemous” texts. The phone was not even in her possession at the time. In several other cases, particularly involving young people, it seems that images are manipulated or put onto their Facebook accounts without their knowledge. Another woman, also named Shagufta—this time Kiran—awaits trial for allegedly forwarding a blasphemous post, which she did not originate herself, simply because she was in a WhatsApp group.
There are too many other examples to list here, and there’s a depressing similarity between them.
A Legal Labyrinth
What they also all have in common is that the system is loaded against them as soon as the B word is mentioned. When you’ve followed cases for years, as I have, you notice the familiar patterns—lawyers refusing to appear because they value their lives too much, and endless delays and bureaucracy, even when there’s no credible evidence.
The most glaring case showing this at present is that of a former Karachi pastor, Zafar Bhatti, thought to be the longest serving prisoner so far on blasphemy charges. Arrested in July 2012 after an Islamic cleric claimed he had received blasphemous texts, Bhatti says he was tortured into a confession. The cleric filed the case in Rawalpindi, 1,100 miles away from Bhatti’s home.
Evidence pointed clearly to the fact that Bhatti didn’t even own the phone from which the texts were sent. It was owned, instead, by a woman. The judge was reluctant to convict her, and then in 2016 she died. In May 2017, having already survived several attempts on his life by fellow inmates, Bhatti was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment under Section 295C—even though 295C has a mandatory death penalty. This lesser sentence was reportedly given because there was no evidence against him.
In April 2019 an appeal judge said that Bhatti should be released, but allowed police and prosecution until June 19 to produce their evidence. However, High Court judges then delayed three times. After that, a March 25, 2020, hearing was delayed by the COVID pandemic.
On June 22, 2021, an additional sessions court judge in Rawalpindi upheld Bhatti’s conviction, confirming his life sentence.
In October 2021 Bhatti’s case was sent back to the trial court by the Lahore High Court.
In January 2022 Bhatti—hopeful of freedom at last—had his life sentence changed to death (because 295C demands death), even though he should not have been judged under that clause, but rather 295A, as the “blasphemy” was not against the Prophet Muhammad, but his mother.
Nearly 10 years after his arrest, Zafar Bhatti’s wife struggles to survive. She rents a house in Rawalpindi so she can at least visit him. Their older daughters have had arranged marriages at a young age because their mother could not afford to keep them. She’s had to send her younger children to their grandparents. She was reported to be “broken” by news of the death penalty.
Bhatti, a diabetic, needs surgery—for cataracts and for his right ear. Like every blasphemy prisoner, he has to make his own meals in prison to ensure no one poisons his food, though that has happened already. He’s already survived being shot in prison when in September 2014 a prison policeman said he had “divine inspiration” to kill all blasphemers. The bullet broke two of Bhatti’s ribs and punctured his right lung; he recovered in the prison hospital. However, mistaken reports of Bhatti’s death went global; a local church even held a funeral service for him despite the fact that prison authorities would not release his body to his wife.
Bhatti is reported to have been offered his freedom if only he would convert to Islam, but he has so far refused to deny his faith.
1 The phrase “the finality of the Prophet Muhammad” refers to the party’s repudiation of a belief held by Pakistan’s Ahmadi Muslims—a persecuted minority who believe there was another later prophet. Ahmadis are generally treated as non-Muslims, much to their despair.
Illustration by Brad Holland
Article Author: Julia Bicknell
Julia Bicknell, a former BBC journalist, is an award-winning reporter and cofounder of World Watch Monitor (worldwatchmonitor.org), an international organization that reports the stories of Christians around the world under pressure for their faith. Follow her on Twitter, @juliabicknell.