1997-10-15 00:00:00

Nearly three years after he and another judge acquitted two Christians accused of blaspheming Prophet Mohammad, retired Lahore High Court Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti has been murdered.

Media reports said an unidentified assassin, bearded and wearing a white cap, calmly entered Bhatti´s office Oct. 10, just 100 meters from the High Court, shot him three times in the head and escaped.

Bhatti, 62, died en route to the hospital.

Since the February 1995 verdict Bhatti had received a number of death threats, reportedly including letters clearly referring to the blasphemy case. He maintained private guards for a time.

However, his son Ali Arif said, "My father did not inform the police because he said that the time of death is fixed."

Bhatti and Justice Khurshid Ahmed comprised a two-man bench that acquitted Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih, both 14, overturning an earlier decision by a lower court in which the two young Christians were sentenced to death.

In Pakistan, "Masih" is appended to a given name to denote a Christian, usually a male. Most Pakistanis go by only a first name.

Salamat and Rehmat, along with Manzoor Masih, also 14, had been accused of blasphemy in May 1993 for throwing chits into the premises of a mosque outside Gujranwala city, 40 kilometers north of Lahore, capital of Sindh province.

In April 1994, during their trial by a sessions (lower) court, Manzoor was killed in the premises of the Lahore High Court, not far from where Bhatti was murdered.

In February 1995, Salamat and Rehmat were convicted of blasphemy and were sentenced to death.

The blasphemy laws, enacted during late president General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq´s martial law regime (1977-88), state, "Anybody who in any way offends the name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed, (peace be upon him), in writing or verbally, by insinuation or innuendo, will be sentenced to death."

The penalty for blaspheming the Koran is life imprisonment.

For the Christians´ appeal to the High Court, the government appointed Asma Jahangir, chairperson of Pakistan´s Human Rights Commission, and other lawyers as "amicus curiae" (counsel the court).

The High Court reversed the sentence after a fortnight, but Salamat and Rehmat were secretly rushed to Germany for fear that they too would be killed.

Ahmed was forced into early retirement. Bhatti worked until the retirement age of 60. Jahangir received death threats and survived an attempt on her life in 1996.

Condemning Bhatti´s assassination, the Bar Association deplored that murderers of just lawyers and judges are not arrested and that the law and order situation in the country was becoming worse.

Queen Elizabeth of England, on her second visit to Pakistan, was only a few kilometers away when Bhatti was killed. She had been urging that Pakistan´s minorities be allowed to thrive in the Muslim-majority country.

Mourning the death of Bhatti, a Christian lawyer told UCA News, "It is very sad. Now nobody would like to do justice, especially in blasphemy cases. It is going to be even harder for Christians and other religious minorities to get justice in this country."


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