Nine years ago, on March 2, 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani federal minister for minority affairs, was shot dead driving from his mother’s Islamabad home. His assassins have never been brought to justice.
Many government ministers in Pakistan are provided bulletproof cars. Bhatti, however, never was, despite repeated requests and threats to his life. This brutal murder was in some senses inevitable. Not only did Bhatti, himself a Catholic, represent persecuted minorities in Pakistan as the first empowered federal minister for minority affairs, but he also actively campaigned against the country’s draconian blasphemy laws, specifically Articles 295-B and C.
Nine years since his assassination, it is essential to renew calls for a full investigation into his death. In memoriam of the work to which Bhatti devoted his life, it is fitting to use this occasion to bring attention to the cases of numerous other Pakistanis, such as former Fulbright scholar Junaid Hafeez, who are currently being persecuted for blasphemy, and to support Pakistanis who, like Bhatti, are risking their lives in their fight to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Article 295-C of Pakistan’s penal code punishes with death “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.” Since its adoption in the 1980s, there have been over 1,500 cases lodged against alleged “blasphemers.” Parallel to the state’s prosecution of blasphemy, religious extremist groups and mobs take justice into their own hands. They murder “blasphemers” and, particularly in the case of religious minorities, pillage and burn “blasphemers’” villages. A blasphemy allegation in Pakistan is a death sentence that is either administered by the state or enforced by the mob. It induces a cascade of violence, entangling a “blasphemer’s” associates and larger communities.
Shahbaz Bhatti knew the risk in his commitment to reform the country’s blasphemy laws. In the months preceding his death, he presciently and valiantly discussed the threats he was facing: “The forces of violence… Militant banned organizations, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda. They want to impose their radical philosophy on Pakistan. And whoever stands against their radical philosophy, they threaten them. …When I’m leading this campaign against the Sharia laws, for the abolishment of [the] blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized, persecuted Christians, and other minorities.… These Taliban threaten me.… I’m living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights.”
A source who had been close to Bhatti—speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution to him and his family, as in Pakistan anyone is in danger who speaks out against the law—explained that Bhatti knew he was likely to be killed. Bhatti had met with the prime minister of Canada, who offered him asylum. Cognizant of the danger to his life, Bhatti refused. In the aftermath of his slaughter, his family has faced threats and been forced to maintain a low-profile existence for the past nine years in order to avoid the same fate. Lacking protection and financial resources, they cannot press for an investigation into Bhatti’s killing.
In the absence of political will on the part of the Pakistani government, the case remains unsolved and the assassins unpunished. Pakistan’s failure to bring extremists to justice emboldens them and encourages extrajudicial killings, contributing to the rise in violence and the toxicity of the country’s blasphemy laws.
Bhatti’s assassination came only two months after the murder of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. Taseer was shot in cold blood by his own bodyguard after vocally supporting a woman named Asia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. When Bhatti echoed support for Bibi, he placed a target on his own back.
Asia Bibi received political asylum in Canada in 2019 after an unexpected acquittal on appeal. Her case reflects the web of violence that can accompany a blasphemy accusation and the far-reaching implications it can have for individuals beyond the primary person charged.
In the nine years since Bhatti’s murder, the situation in Pakistan continues to deteriorate. The law prohibiting blasphemy is indiscriminate and applied to Muslims and Christians alike. My source relayed one case of a 10-year-old girl who was accused of blasphemy after incorrectly spelling on an exam a word related to the Prophet Mohammed. She was expelled from school and her mother fired from her job.
There are currently numerous cases that are slowly winding their way through the court system. One ongoing case is that of Junaid Hafeez, a former Fulbright scholar and academic who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in late December of 2019. Hafeez has been languishing in prison since 2013. In 2014, his lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was murdered for defending him. Hafeez is facing an uphill battle; his life will depend upon an appellate court’s overturning the lower court’s decision. An acquittal will put the judges, his lawyers, and himself at risk and provoke societal unrest.
Even if Hafeez does see justice, the unfortunate reality is that he could be murdered while awaiting release. An acquittal would at best mean forced exile. While Hafeez’s case has received international media attention, there are hundreds of nameless Pakistanis who are facing or will face the same fate.
The blasphemy law itself has been deified, making it lethal and blasphemous to even discuss it. At blasphemy trials, evidence of blasphemy often cannot—ironically—be displayed, as the mere presence of a disputed image or text would make for a blasphemous act in and of itself. This dynamic entrenches Pakistan’s blasphemy law further, severing the possibility for reform or repeal. The rare acquittal, as in the case of Asia Bibi, which was partially a result of international pressure, does not signal a larger thaw.
On the anniversary of Shahbaz Bhatti’s death, it is imperative to renew calls to bring his assassins to justice, to call for the release of prisoners of conscience like Junaid Hafeez, and to support the brave Pakistanis working tirelessly to reform and repeal the country’s blasphemy laws.