Pakistan: Impunity reigns in Bhatti’s murder case.

The court of appeal has confirmed the death sentence for the murderer of Governor Salman Taseer who was accused of defending Asia Bibi. Meanwhile, the case of the Catholic minority affairs minister remains unresolved.


The key word is “impunity”. Four years after the murder of Shahbhaz Bhatti, the Catholic minorities minister who was killed by terrorists on 2 March 2011, instigators and executioners remain unpunished. The case has caused an even greater stir after today’s announcement by Islamabad’s court of appeal confirming the death sentence of Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed murderer of Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer. Gunned down two months before Bhatti’s murder, Taseer had been accused of “treachery” and “blasphemy” for his defence – alongside the Catholic minister – of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy after being falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Although Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif abolished the moratorium on the death penalty in light of the latest terrorist attacks, it remains unclear whether the sentence will actually be carried out and whether Qadri will be executed. However, in another case that unfolded practically alongside this one, an acquittal seems to be on the horizon for murderer of Shabhaz Bhatti.

A month ago, Islamabad’s High Court postponed the verdict date after Abdullah Umar Abbasi’s  lawyers called for his release on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Abbasi was arrested in 2013 on charges of involvement in Bhatti’s murder but the Public Prosecutor’s accusing body was weak: there were no eye witnesses and many observers were certain that the defendant would be acquitted. The murder case would remain without any guilty persons.

Bhatti started receiving death threats in 2009 when he spoke out in favour of Christians who were attacked by Islamic militants in Gojra, in the Punjab Province. More and more threats started being made after he defended Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010.

The minister was killed in Islamabad by militants of the radical Islamic movement Sipah-e-Sahaba which was linked to the Pakistani Taliban. His only fault was speaking out against the persecution of Muslim religious minorities and openly criticising Islamic militants of the Deobandi school of thought, announcing his commitment to reforming the country’s blasphemy law.

But the political ghost of that tragic event has come back to haunt: Sipah-e-Sahaba had already been banned as a “terrorist organisation” by President Pervez Musharraf in 2002 and was abolished again in 2012. In November 2014 Pakistan’s Supreme Court re-instated the movement and its name changed to Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and is currently politically allied with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League.

The current Prime Minister has consolidated executive powers thanks to the recent elections (52 seats, a portion of Pakistan’s Senate), in which his party won a majority. Observers say it is highly unlikely the movement will be accused again in anti-terrorist police investigations for a case such as Bhatti’s.

Then there are the instigators. Just a few weeks before Bhatti’s murder, Tahir Ashrafi, the Islamic leader of the “Deobandi” school pronounced a violent public invective against Shahbhaz Bhatti, in which he spoke of “physical elimination” if the minister did not stop opposing the blasphemy laws. That speech is still seen as the speech that signed Bhatti’s death sentence. But no action was taken then and none has been taken now against Ashrafi, who is described by many as the “moral instigator” or the instigator of that crime.

On the fourth anniversary of Shahbhaz Bhatti’s death, one of his friends, the Catholic lawyer Khalil Tahir Sindhu – who studied with Bhatti with whom he also shared a commitment toward the protection and progress of religious minorities in Pakistan – had some positive news to share in memory of the murdered minister.

Sindhu, who is now minister for human rights and minority affairs of the provincial government of Pakistani Punjab – the country’s most important province in economic terms but also the province where Islamic extremism is strongest – managed to implement, on a provincial level, a federal law promoted by Shahbhaz Bhatti (and often ignored): a law which allocates 5% of public administration positions to citizens belonging to religious minorities.

Paolo Affatato 03/ 9/2015