A Pakistani Christian who was earlier sentenced to a life in prison for alleged blasphemy has been sentenced to death by hanging.
The life sentence that Zafar Bhatti, 52, has been serving in Rawalpindi, northeast Pakistan, has been changed to death by hanging on January 3, according to reports.
AsiaNews reported that Judge Sahibzada Naqib Shehzad of the local District Court decided to change the sentence “from life imprisonment … into a death penalty.”
“Zafar is innocent and was unfairly framed in the blasphemy case,” the report quoted Nawab Bibi, the man’s wife.
“When I heard the news of the death sentence for Zafar, I could not stop crying and praying to Jesus,” the woman told AsiaNews.
“They tried several times to persuade him to convert to Islam in order to obtain freedom, but Zafar remains strong in his faith,” she added.
Zafar was charged and convicted of blasphemy for allegedly sending text messages that insulted the mother of the prophet Muhammad, an accusation that he has always denied.
The advocacy group Release International said that in 2012, Zafar was gathering evidence about Christian persecution when he was accused of sending the defamatory texts.
He has always said that the texts were sent from a phone that was not registered in his name.
In May 2017, Zafar, who has been described as a pastor or a charity worker, was given a life sentence.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom later report that Zafar was tortured to extract a confession. He has been in prison since July 2012.
A statement from the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, one of the charities supporting Zafar’s family, said the case had been transferred to different judges at least four times.
In October, High Court judge Abdul Aziz heard the case and referred it back to the District Court, calling for a review of the earlier sentence on the grounds that section 295C of Pakistan’s Penal Code made the death sentence mandatory.
Nasir Saeed, director of CLAAS-UK, said Pakistan’s blasphemy law was “frequently misused” in personal conflicts “to target religious minorities and to oppress political opponents or critical voices.”
He said the Pakistani government has exacerbated “religious divides and thus creating a climate of religious intolerance.”