Qamar David, a Pakistani Christian serving a life sentence for blasphemy against Islam, was found dead in his Karachi jail cell yesterday. David, in prison since 2002, was sentenced for allegedly sending derogatory text messages about the Prophet Mohammad, though his lawyer maintains that the charges were motivated by a business rivalry. He was 55 years old and the father of four sons.
Authorities report that he died of a heart attack, but it is widely suspected that he was murdered by radical Muslims who, in recent months, have sought by violent means to defend Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
Qamar David is the most recent in a mounting toll of Pakistani deaths his year related to blasphemy. In January 2011, Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, was shot by one of his bodyguards, who was angry about Taseer’s opposition to the blasphemy laws. Taseer, a Muslim, had come to the defense of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, who was sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy in November 2010. Her continuing imprisonment has attracted international concern.
On March 2, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Roman Catholic and the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, was shot dead during an ambush by gunmen in Islamabad. He had received numerous death threats over his efforts to reform the blasphemy laws. He had courageously and outspokenly defied the threats.
Also this year in Pakistan, ten Sufis were murdered for their religious heterodoxy, and a Sunni Muslim man was killed by someone who had accused him of blasphemy.
Pakistan’s draconian laws only apply to alleged blasphemies against Islam; no other religions are similarly protected. The laws neither define blasphemy nor provide measures to protect those who are falsely accused. This, of course, invites outrageous abuses and false accusations, frequently motivated by personal grudges, property disputes, or religious intolerance.
Although no one in Pakistan has yet officially been executed for blasphemy, since the 1980s many of those accused have been murdered by police, vigilantes, or mobs. Some have been killed even after having been acquitted. Many others suffered brutal assaults, and there have been innumerable mob attacks on churches, homes, and businesses.
Efforts to amend the laws have inflamed radical Islamists. After Bhatti’s death, Farahnaz Ispahani, an aide to President Asif Ali Zardari, said of the recent bloodshed, “This is a concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive and humanist voice in Pakistan. The time has come for the federal government and provincial governments to speak out and to take a strong stand against these murderers to save the very essence of Pakistan.”
— Lela Gilbert is an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.