ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– A Christian man sentenced to life imprisonment for blasphemy against Islam’s Prophet Muhammad has been found dead in his prison cell in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi after receiving death threats, his family and lawyer confirmed Wednesday, March 16.
(ADDS COMMENTS LAWYER, CHANGES LEAD, CORRECTS AGE AND PRISON DATES)
>Qamar David received “death threats”
>Investigation into death under way
>David’s Death adds to concerns over detained Asia Bibi
By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
Prison authorities said 55-year-old Qamar David, who had been in jail since 2006, died of “a heart attack”, but his wife expressed skepticism about this claim. “My husband had no disease,” his wife Tabassum told Pakistan’s The Express Tribune news paper. “He informed me about receiving threats from someone in jail after the assassination of [Pakistan Minister for Minority Affairs] Shahbaz Bhatti,” she added.
Bhatti was shot and killed March 2 by suspected Muslim militants after publicly criticizing Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy legislation.
Jail Deputy Superintendent Raja Mumtaz denied claims that David was murdered. “No one killed him,” he told reporters. “He died of a heart attack.” Officials said he was taken to Civil Hospital in Karachi where he died while being treated.
A postmortem was to be held Wednesday, March 16, in the presence of his family, a magistrate and a police surgeon, The Express Tribune reported. With the investigation underway, his lawyer, Pervez Chaudhry, told reporters he was convinced his client did not die of natural causes “as he was in good health”. He also said David had received death threats. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.
A sessions court in Karachi sentenced David to life imprisonment in February 2010, six years after the original accusation, and his lawyer had been seeking an appeal hearing since that time.
The appeal process can take years in Pakistan, trial observers said.
David was accused of sending text messages which allegedly contained derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad.
Qamar David’s lawyer and church leaders maintained that the allegations were spurious, triggered by a business rivalry, and that the conviction was the result of pressure from local religious clerics and their supporters.
Rights activists have said blasphemy legislation has been misused in Pakistan to settle personal scores. “The government must address both the ease with which the blasphemy laws can be abused, and the social attitudes which view it as acceptable to do so,” said Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston of rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
David and those defending him have experienced violence from mobs at nearly every court hearing in his court case, according to CSW investigators.
News of David’s death came as Pakistani Christians were still mourning this month’s assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, who was the only Christian in the cabinet, explained Bishop Rufin Anthony of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi. “I am in grief, the whole Christian community has been grieving for the past few days,” following the assassination, he said. “We haven’t recovered from the loss and this news [of David’s death] has increased my concerns about the future of Christians in Pakistan,” the bishop stressed in published remarks.
He said “David was falsely accused” of blasphemy. “How much more blood do we still have to see to realize that the blasphemy laws need to be abolished? How much blood does the government wants to have on its hands? Another sad day for the minorities in Pakistan,” Bishop Anthony added.
Christian human rights groups have demanded that an independent committee investigates the causes of this death. “It is yet another tragic example of lives needlessly destroyed by the blasphemy laws in Pakistan and the inability of the government, court system and prisons to prevent this,” stressed Johnston.
He said CSW, which closely monitored the case, is “shocked to hear this sad news and our thoughts and prayers are with Qamar David’s wife and children. The last nine years of this family’s life have been utterly ravaged by the consequences of a vindictive blasphemy accusation that would have very likely been dismissed by the High Court in time.”
David’s death also added to international concerns over another detained Christian, Asia Bibi, who became the first woman to be sentenced to hang under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
It began in the summer of 2009 as a quarrel over water in a sweltering farm field where she worked in the province of Punjab. When the heated words were over, Bibi was charged under the strict blasphemy laws of Pakistan, where Christians comprise less than five percent of the predominantly Muslim population of over 184 million people.
Although appeal procedures are ongoing, Bibi, a mother of five, has reportedly voiced her “pain and concern” that she may be the next person to be killed in her Sheikhupura prison, near Lahore city, following the assassination of Minister Bhatti.
Bibi compared Bhatti to recently slain Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who defended her publicly “and paid with his life,” her lawyer was quoted as saying by Catholic media.
Last year, the imam of the city of Peshawar’s oldest mosque, Maluna Yousaf Qureshi, offered a 500,000 rupee (about $5,800) reward to anyone who killed the woman if the court failed to execute her.
Additionally the militant Taliban group reportedly threatened retribution should she be spared, prompting Bibi’s family to flee their home in the Christian colony of Gloria in Sheikhupura, a 90-minute drive from Lahore.
The London-based Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement said the blasphemy law is the “obvious” root of such “persecution” and pledged it will continue to seek its repeal.
Her case also caused international condemnation and leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI, called for her release.