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Pakistani Christian jailed for blasphemy found dead in prison cell

Protesters hold up a picture of Mumtaz Qadri, suspected murderer of Salmaan Taseer, at a rally against reforming the blasphemy laws (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash)

A Pakistani Christian who was jailed for life for blasphemy last year has been found dead in his prison cell in Karachi.

Qamar David, who was jailed in 2002 following an accusation of blasphemy but only sentenced last year, died of a heart attack, according to prison authorities. But Church leaders and human rights activists have called for the cause of death to be assessed independently.

Qamar David was sentenced to life imprisonment in February last year, but had been seeking to appeal against the ruling.

His lawyer, Pervez Chaudhry, told the BBC: “My client was in perfect condition the last time I met him. I have spoken to the family and we don’t believe he died a natural death. He had been receiving threats against his life.

“I had submitted an application in this regard in court – my client had also mentioned that prison officials were involved.”

Shahid Sagar, David’s cousin, said: “I visited him quite regularly and he had never complained of any illness.

“He was certainly not in the kind of condition that would make him drop dead all of a sudden. I can’t accept this report of him dying of a heart attack.”

But prison officials said that Qamar David died of natural causes. Ghulam Qadir Thebo, inspector general of prisons, said he was lodged in a Christians-only wing – so there was no question of him being targeted by Muslim prisoners.

“Our investigations have not yielded any evidence of foul play,” Mr Thebo said.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Qamar David’s lawyer had always maintained that the allegations of blasphemy were spurious, triggered by a business rivalry, and that the conviction was the result of pressure from local religious clerics and their supporters. David and his lawyer had reportedly experienced threats or violence from mobs at nearly every court hearing.

Andrew Johnston, Christian Solidarity Worldwide advocacy director, said, “We are 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. 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. Given the threats known to be faced by blasphemy prisoners, it is imperative that the true cause of his death be investigated properly and independently.

“This news comes less than two weeks days after the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, and it underlines the urgent need to continue his work. 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.”