LAHORE, Pakistan (BP) -- Intimidation by Islamic militants has prompted the brother of Pakistan's first Christian cabinet minister to leave the country.
Paul Bhatti's efforts to bring the killers of his brother, Shahbaz Bhatti, to justice could be thwarted by the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) terrorist organizations.
Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for minority affairs, was assassinated in March 2011, two months after Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim, was slain. Militants targeted both men for their criticism of the country's blasphemy laws and their defense of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother sentenced to death for allegedly blaspheming Islam's prophet. Bibi has been waiting for three years to have her appeal heard.
In addition to the death threats, extremist groups are demanding that the government release the four suspects in Bhatti's murder as a precondition for peace talks.
Paul Bhatti stepped forward as the complainant in the case when the government's prosecution slowed to a standstill.
"I've been constantly threatened to withdraw the case, and just recently I received a letter from the Pakistani Taliban and LeJ warning me to stop pursuing the case or else they will kill me," Bhatti told persecution monitor Morning Star News by phone from Italy. "I informed the government and other concerned quarters about these threats, but I'm yet to hear something from their side."
Riaz Gondal, the investigating officer in the case, admitted that the suspects and their militant advocates pose a serious threat to the murder victim's brother.
"Indeed it is a serious matter -- perhaps this is why [Paul Bhatti's legal counsel] hadn't been pursuing the case," Gondal said, noting that Bhatti's absence from hearings and reduced contact with investigators would impair prosecution. "We did our job and arrested the accused. It's now up to the court to punish them. But if the complainant does not show up at the hearings, there's little hope for the killers to be convicted."
Bhatti, who left a medical practice in Italy to return to Pakistan after his brother's murder, was named minister for national harmony and minority affairs, appointed to replace his brother. He also was selected as chairman of his brother's party, the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. When the public prosecutor assigned by the Punjab government refused to pursue the murder case in anti-terrorism court, he said, "I then hired a lawyer on my own although it was the responsibility of the Punjab government."
Gondal, asked why the government is not the complainant in the murder case of a cabinet minister, especially with such high risks, said, "I was assigned the investigation some months ago, so I can't really say why Shahbaz Bhatti's brother became the complainant in the case. As for the government's role in this matter, the police are doing their job, and arrests of the accused are a testimony of their efforts."
Complicating the case is the possibility that the suspects and other imprisoned terrorists could be released as part of an agreement for government talks with banned Muslim extremists groups.
The right-wing government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is holding peace talks with the Taliban, and most political analysts believe the government might release some Taliban prisoners as a confidence-building measure with the Taliban.
Bhatti said it is the government's responsibility to keep the murderers of a sitting cabinet minister from walking free. "The men themselves confessed to killing my brother," Bhatti said. It also has been reported that two of the suspects confessed to killing Bhatti and named two accomplices, who were detained shortly afterwards.
"It would be very unjust if the government submits to the Taliban demand," Bhatti said.
Prominent human rights activist Asma Jahangir said the Taliban have killed thousands of innocent people and members of security forces in recent years. "How can the government even think of negotiating with such barbarians? The government must not accept the Taliban's demand for release of hard-core militants, as the peace talks may turn out to be a Taliban ploy to get their friends released from prisons."
A senior Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the media, told Morning Star News that officials had received Paul Bhatti's application for provision of security due to Taliban threats against him.
"We are looking into the matter," the official said. "Almost every other important person is facing high risk, but it is not possible for us to provide extensive security cover to everyone given our limited resources."
Bhatti, saying he does not plan to remain in Italy, noted, "I know we are potential targets, but we will not give up. Those threatening us are the same people who are responsible for the murders of my brother and countless other innocent people in Pakistan."
This story first appeared at Morning Star News (www.MorningStarNews.org), a California-based independent news service focusing on the persecution of Christians worldwide. Used by permission.