A court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, upheld the life sentence of a Christian man who was accused of sending blasphemous text messages to an Islamic cleric in 2012.
Zafar Bhatti was charged with committing blasphemy under Pakistan's 295-C law and convicted in 2017. Bhatti, 56, still maintains his innocence in the case. He's illiterate and does not know how to write or how to send a text message.
Morning Star News reports a judge certified Bhatti's conviction last Tuesday, despite a lack of evidence that directly links him with the alleged crime.
Numerous witnesses reportedly linked a woman named Ghazala Khan with the unregistered number that sent the text messages. She was arrested in 2012 and tried the following year. Khan also said she was innocent, and a judge granted her bail. She died in 2016 from Hepatitis C.
According to Bhatti's attorney, Tahir Bashir, the judge was not pleased with the evidence presented against Bhatti and sentenced him to life in prison even though blasphemy is punishable by death.
"The trial court judge gave this verdict under immense pressure because the complainant was an office-bearer of the Islamist extremist outfit Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat," Bashir told Morning Star News. "I believe the verdict delivered this time was also under pressure because there's no direct evidence against Bhatti."
Despite the "disappointing verdict," Bashir said he'll remain hopeful that the Lahore High Court will accept his appeal and order Bhatti's acquittal.
"It's very unfortunate that innocent people are made to suffer in jail, and their appeals are kept pending by the higher courts for years," he explained.
Blasphemy convictions are often overturned on appeal in Pakistan.
As CBN News reported earlier this month, a Christian Pakistani couple sentenced to death for blasphemy seven years ago was finally acquitted by the Lahore High Court.
In 2014, Shafqat Emmanuel and his wife Shagufta Kausar were convicted of sending blasphemous text messages insulting the prophet Muhammad to a local imam from a phone number registered to Shagufta's name.
Under Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws, anyone accused of insulting Islam or its prophet can be sentenced to death. Although no one has ever been executed for it, dozens of people have been killed by mobs for just being accused of the crime.
False accusations of blasphemy are common in the Islamic country, and often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. Christians and other religious minorities continue to be prime targets for abuse under Pakistan's blasphemy laws.
In December, the U.S. State Department named Pakistan among nine other "countries of particular concern" for serious violations of religious freedom.
Pakistan ranks at number 5 on Open Doors USA's 2021 World Watch List of the most dangerous countries to be a Christian.
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