Islamabad (AsiaNews) - "Events like this, in which people mete out 'justice' on their own, are a worrying sign. The man was in prison and it was the state's duty to protect him and ensure his safety, despite the charges against him," said Paul Bhatti, former federal minister for National Harmony and current leader of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA).
Bhatti spoke to AsiaNews about the murder in prison of 45-year-old Rev Zafar Bhatti whose lifeless body was found yesterday morning in his cell in Rawalpindi's Adyala prison where he was held pending trial.
In recent weeks, Rev Bhatti had told his family on various occasions that he feared for his life because of threats not only from other inmates but also from prison guards.
Speaking about the clergyman's murder, the latest involving a defendant, the former minister stressed that it was a sign of the weakness of the current government, and that in Pakistan there was an urgent need "to ensure political stability and respect for the rule of law."
Until "we reach that goal," he warned, "we cannot hope for justice," which should be "guaranteed to all," even to those accused of blasphemy, "regardless of whether or not that person is innocent or guilty."
"The fact that he was killed in prison goes to show that the legal system and the rule of law are very weak in Pakistan," Paul Bhatti explained.
"Pakistan has to change with regards to this," he added, because "law, justice and freedom of expression must prevail."
Citizens, even when they are involved in criminal proceedings, including the crime of blasphemy, "should be protected, but this is not happening. He had the right to be protected by the government.
"With events like this, it seems inevitable that people are forced to flee and leave the country," he added.
For Paul Bhatti, there is no need for campaigns to pressure the government or foreign initiatives to get laws like that about blasphemy abolished, even if they are exploited to settle personal disputes or carry out vendettas.
Instead, he hopes to "see people, local Muslim leaders, get involved in looking at the causes of the violence and find a common way to resolve disputes," as was the case in the release of Rimsha Masih and Mansha Masih.
"We want stability to ensure protection not only to the weak, but to the whole country and to all people of good faith," said the APMA president. "Christians and Muslims must unite; otherwise no one is going survive."
With a population of more than 180 million people (97 per cent Muslim), Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, the second largest Muslim nation after Indonesia.
About 80 per cent of Muslims are Sunni, whilst Shias are 20 per cent. Hindus are 1.85 per cent, followed by Christians (1.6 per cent) and Sikhs (0.04 per cent).
Attacks against ethnic or religious minorities are occurring across the country, but there has been a real escalation in recent years.
Scores of violent incidents have occurred in recent years, against entire communities (Gojra in 2009, and Joseph Colony, Lahore, in March 2013), places of worship (Peshawar, September last year) and individuals (Sawan Masih, Asia Bibi, Rimsha Masih and Robert Fanish Masih, who died in prison), often perpetrated under the pretext of the country's blasphemy laws.