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PERSPECTIVE

Shahbaz Bhatti – A Daring Champion Of Minorities' Rights
by S.M. FAZAL

perspectiveShahbaz Bhatti knew all along that he was on a dangerous course and was running the risk of his life. So also did his party colleagues and the people of his community close to him. He had been receiving life threats for his utterances against some provisions of the anti-blasphemy law, and had kept the authorities informed about the danger to his life. He had seen what happened to Salman Taseer for calling it a black law and visiting Aasia Bibi, a condemned prisoner for blasphemy, in the jail. Indeed, Shahbaz Bhatti was so much shaken after Salman Taseer's assassination that he had started feeling scared of his own security guards and preferred to keep them at a distance. It was also after Taseer's murder that he had asked the government for a bullet proof car.
Yet despite the serious threat to his life Bhatti was undaunted. He kept on campaigning. He did not outright oppose the anti-blasphemy law but wanted amendments in it to ensure that it is not misused and innocent people are not punished under it. He often remarked that he did not mind even if he had to sacrifice his life for it but he would not stop raising his voice against it and saying what his conscience dictated to him. The inevitable happened on the morning of March 2 and he went down in a hail of assassins' bullets.
Most people opposing the mandatory death sentence for blasphemy blame ex-president Ziaul Haq for it, although the fact is that the original law adopted by the Majlis-e-Shura during Ziaul Haq's time did not provide for mandatory death sentence; it was two years after Zia's death that the Federal Shariat Court held death sentence, under section 295-C of the PPC, mandatory, in a judgment on an appeal, which, having gone unchallenged, became law.
However, viewed in the historical perspective, in the sub-continent laws have remained irrelevant when it comes to blasphemy of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). It is well illustrated by cases of Ghazi Ilam Din Shaheed and Ghazi Abdul Qayyum Shaheed during the British rule. There was no specific law against blasphemy of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), in those days. The two men were sentenced to death for murdering blasphemers of the Prophet, and the entire Muslim community hailed them as heroes.
Coming to the present time, the law prescribes death sentence for blasphemy. But to this day not a single person has been put to death under any court order. Yet people have 'taken the law into their own hands', so to say, and at various times, have killed several persons who, they considered, had committed blasphemy. The latest case came two days after the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, in which a man, a Muslim, who had been charged with blasphemy but was later released by the court in the absence of any evidence, was gunned down by three masked men in a village near Rawalpindi.
As a matter of fact, Islamisation of laws by Ziaul Haq was never supported by the liberal section of the Pakistani society. There was criticism of the laws under the surface. But the governments which succeeded Ziaul Haq's regime did not find it advisable to touch those laws for fear of offending the clergy and the religious parties. Nevertheless, under the anti-blasphemy law hundreds of cases came to be registered especially in Punjab, not all of which were genuine. As with the other laws, the anti-blasphemy law was also misused in cases of personal enmities and property disputes etc. between late 80s and 2008 hundreds of cases were registered. Because of the mandatory death sentence some of these cases attracted the attention of the public leaders especially those involving members of the Christian community.
Shahbaz Bhatti being a spirited young leader of the Christian community and a member of the Peoples Party having a secular agenda and fiercely anti-Zia became pro active in trying to help those implicated in the blasphemy cases. He also demanded amendment in the law to save such people from death sentence.
perspectiveThe issue would not have become so controversial and perhaps the political parties would have reached some consensus in the matter but for the interference by the western governments and HR organizations, and the eager response they got from people like Bhatti and some of the local clergy. This changed the entire scenario; it electrified the Islamic religious parties and the pro-jihad elements that started opposing any talk of amendments in the Zia era's Islamic laws. The issue became part of the overall conflict between the west and the Islamic parties.
Once the western governments and NGOs come in, it becomes well nigh impossible for the local parties to reach an amicable solution of any matter requiring a liberal interpretation of the religious edicts.
Shahbaz Bhatt, perhaps unmindful of the consequences of welcoming such foreign interference, eagerly solicited support of western NGOs; and he became a champion of rights of the Christian minority. He built contacts with the Amnesty International, and then he established rapport with a number of human rights bodies. Instead of letting the matter of anti-blasphemy law be dealt with in the overall context, he took it up as an issue of Christian minority. That provided an opportunity to the rightist clergy who are always on the lookout for opportunities to criticise the west, and complicated the matters
for Bhatti.
After having become a minister in the federal cabinet, he felt freer to interact with western government leaders. According to one report only last month Shahbaz Bhatti met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with whom he discussed the issue of religious freedom in Pakistan. He apprised her of the various steps he had taken for promoting inter-faith understanding. The US Secretary of State, he said, was very supportive of religious freedom. She said religious freedom was one of the important areas on which the US foreign policy was based and that they would continue this issue in their dialogues not only in Pakistan but around the globe.
This proactive behavior of Bhatti had made him a prime target of the extremist elements. He had been receiving life threats from various banned outfits for demanding amendments to the blasphemy laws. One report said that extremist clerics had issued decrees calling for him to be killed. That is why he had asked for a bullet proof car. He believed himself to be a high profile target of extremists following the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer. Bhatti's friend Robinson Asghar said that following the murder of governor Taseer he had asked Bhatti to leave Pakistan for a while, but he had refused.
The Pakistani Taliban militants had called for Bhatti's death because of attempts to amend the blasphemy law. He is a blasphemer like Salman Taseer, Taliban spokesman Sajjad Mohmand had told the media from an undisclosed location.
Then last month in an interview with the Christian Post, Bhatti said he had received threats. "I received a call from Taliban commander and he said, 'if you bring any changes in the blasphemy law and speak on this issue, then you will be killed'," Bhatti told the paper. He had said, 'I don't believe that body guards can save me after the assassination of Salman Taseer. I believe in the protection from heaven'.
Bhatti who was a Roman Catholic had met Pope Benedict in Rome last September and apprised him of his efforts to secure the rights of the Christian minority in Pakistan.


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