Main Suspect in Bhatti Murder in Pakistan Released as Death Threats Stall Prosecution

Islamic extremist intimidation silences witnesses.

Tribute to Shahbaz Bhatti. (Morning Star News via Pakistan Today)

Tribute to Shahbaz Bhatti. (Morning Star News via Pakistan Today)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – More than three years after the assassination of Pakistan’s first Christian cabinet-level minister, Islamist extremists have silenced prosecution witnesses and the prime suspect was released on bail on July 11, the prosecutor said.

With prosecution witnesses unwilling to record their statements in court due to Islamic extremist death threats, there has been no progress in the murder trial of former Minister for Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who was gunned down on March 2, 2011, attorney Abdul Hameed Rana told Morning Star News.

Islamabad Anti-Terrorism Judge Atiqur Rehman granted bail to the suspect, Omar Abdullah, on “medical grounds.”

“The decision was earlier reserved by Judge Rehman, but on Friday [July 11] he ordered Abdullah’s release on bail, citing medical reasons,” Rana said. “Abdullah was injured in a shootout with police and intelligence personnel when a raid was conducted for his arrest at a private hospital in the federal capital last year.”

Abdullah, suspected of being an Al Qaeda operative, is also the main suspect in the murder of Chaudhry Zulfiqar, a senior prosecutor with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). Abdullah’s lawyers had already won bail for him in the Zulfiqar case for medical reasons.

Although Abdullah and others suspects – Hammad Adil, Abdul Sattar and one identified only as Tanveer – have been indicted in connection with the murder and were in jail, there has been no progress since November for lack of witnesses, due to serious threats to their lives from terrorist outfits.

“We informed the court that the witnesses and the prosecution team were receiving threats from terrorists and sought police protection in order to appear in court for recording testimonies,” Rana said. “The court ordered the government to arrange for our security, but over eight months have passed and there has been no response from the government side.”

The attorney said that although Bhatti’s family was pursuing the case, complainant and eyewitness Sikandar Bhatti, brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, and other witnesses, including Tahir Naveed Chaudhry and Akmal Bhatti, had been receiving threats since the trial began.

“The situation is such that Gul Sher, who was driving Shahbaz Bhatti’s car on the day of the incident and a key witness to the killing, has fled Pakistan as no one was willing to provide him security,” Rana said. “Another witness, Akmal Bhatti, who was following Bhatti’s vehicle in another car and had seen the killers, has been repeatedly harassed by militants.”

The Islamic extremists threaten Akmal Bhatti on the phone and have also thrown threatening notes at his office and home in Faisalabad warning him against giving testimony, Rana said.

“The police have been notified, but Akmal is living on a knife’s edge every day, not knowing what might happen the next moment,” the lawyer told Morning Star News.

Regarding the driver Sher’s absence, Rana said the prosecution’s case was still strong, and that “if the government shows some commitment in taking the case to its logical end,” he was quite hopeful of conviction.

“Gul Sher’s presence is not necessary, as all other witnesses are present in Pakistan, and the testimonies of only two are required to establish the case,” he said.

Paul Bhatti, brother of Shahbaz Bhatti and appointed minister in his place in the previous Pakistan People’s Party-led government, had earlier shared the family’s security concerns with Morning Star News. He complained of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government’s lax attitude in the case.

Bhatti said that the public prosecutor assigned by the Punjab Province government had refused to pursue the murder case over security fears, and that the family had then hired a lawyer to prosecute.

Christians make up just 2.45 percent of Pakistan’s population, which is nearly 96 percent Muslim, according to Operation World.

Two months before Shahbaz Bhatti was killed, Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim, was assassinated on Jan. 4, 2011. Al Qaeda-linked extremists targeted both men for their criticism of the country’s blasphemy laws and for their defense of Asia Noreen (also known as Asia Bibi), a Christian mother sentenced to death for allegedly blaspheming Islam’s prophet.

She has been waiting for three years to have her appeal heard.

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