Suspects in the murder of Pakistan's first Christian cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, could walk free due to intimidation tactics by Islamic extremists, Christians fear.
According to a story by Morning Star News, the suspects have confessed, according to Dr Paul Bhatti, brother of former Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who was gunned down on 2 March 2011.
However, prosecution will be difficult after death threats from Islamic extremists forced Paul Bhatti to flee the country, and banned extremist groups are demanding the release of the suspects for progress in talks with government officials.
Paul Bhatti took responsibility for becoming the complainant in the case when the government's prosecution slowed to a standstill, but he has left the country due to threats on his life by the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) terrorist organisations.
"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 Morning Star News by phone from Italy.
He added, "I informed the government and other concer ned quarters about these threats, but I'm yet to hear something from their side."
Bhatti has not given up on prosecuting, but Sub-Inspector Riaz Gondal, the investigating officer in the case, admitted that the suspects and their handlers did pose a serious threat to the murder victim's brother.
"Indeed it is a serious matter - perhaps this is why they hadn't been pursuing the case," he 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 said that the public prosecutor assigned by the Punjab government had refused to pursue the murder case in the Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court.
"I then hired a lawyer on my own, although it was the responsibility of the Punjab government," he said.
Asked why the government was not the complainant in the murder case of its cabinet minister instead of the victim's brother, especially with the case carrying such high risks, Gondal 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."
Morning Star News said Gondal denied receiving any information regarding the threats to Paul Bhatti.
Complicating the case is the possibility that the suspects could be released as part of an agreement for government talks with banned Muslim extremists groups.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has reportedly demanded the release of Bhatti's alleged assassins along with other imprisoned terrorists as a pre-condition for progress in "peace talks" with the government.
Bhatti said that it was the government's responsibility to keep the murderers of a sitting cabinet minister from walking free.
"The men themselves confessed to killing my brother," Morning Star News reported he said. "I'm certain that they are the real culprits, because the Taliban are demanding their release. It would be very unjust if the government submits to the Taliban demand."
Almost three years have passed since Bhatti's murder, but the trial has barely begun. Islamabad police believe the latest threatening letters were sent to pressure Bhatti following the arrest of four Islamic extremists accused of killing his brother - Omar Abdullah, Hammad Adil, Abdul Sattar and one identified only as Tanveer, who all belong to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.
Adil had already been detained for planning attacks on key installations in Islamabad, a vehicle laden with 120 kilograms of explosives was recovered from his residence.
Adil and Abdullah reportedly confessed to killing Bhatti and named the two accomplices, who were detained shortly afterwards.
In June 2011, then-Islamabad Senior Superintendent of Police Tahir Alam submitted a joint investigation report to the National Assembly's Standing Committee on Minorities saying that police had decided to shelve the Bhatti murder case as investigators could not find any leads.
The case was reopened on September 30, 2013, at the request of Capital Police, and a joint investigation team was formed following the arrest of Adil.
Gondal, the investigator and officer in charge of the Sabzi Mandi Police Station, said police have filed charge sheets against Adil and Abdullah and sent them to jail on judicial remand. The other two suspects will also be formally charged soon, he added.
Gondal said he could not comment on chances of the suspects walking free as a result of a deal between the government and Taliban.
"I can't comment on this issue, because it's for the government to decide," he said. "But I hope they know how dangerous these men are."
The right-wing government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is holding "peace talks" with the Taliban. Among the preconditions set by the terrorists for a "meaningful outcome of the talks" is the release of Pakistani and foreign terrorists languishing in Pakistani jails.
Most political analysts believe that the government might release some Taliban prisoners as a confidence-building measure with the Taliban.
Prominent human rights activist Asma Jahangir said that if the government caved in to the Taliban demand and released all terrorists affiliated with the group, then it might as well set free all other prisoners languishing in jails across the country.
"The Taliban have killed thousands of innocent people and members of security forces in the last seven years," Jahangir said. "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."
An Interior Ministry senior official refused to comment on the eventuality of any person involved in Bhatti's murder being released as part of a deal between the government and terrorists.
"The government has not taken any such decision as yet, but the final authority rests with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif," he said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to media, he told Morning Star News that officials had received Paul Bhatti's application for provision of security due to Taliban threats to 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."
Lack of progress in the case at one time led Bhatti to lose hope that the killers would ever be brought to justice, said the former minister for national harmony and minority affairs, appointed to replace his brother.
"However, when the police announced that they had the assassins in its custody and shar ed the investigation details with us, I thought that perhaps my brother's killers would be punished for their crime," he said. "But there has been little progress over all."
Morning Star News said he doesn't plan to remain in Italy.
"I know we are potential targets, but we will not give up," he said. "Those threatening us are the same people who are responsible for the murders of my brother and countless other innocent people in Pakistan."
He said that after the murder of his brother, he left his medical practice in Italy and returned to Pakistan to continue Shahbaz's mission. He was selected as chairman of his brother's party, the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, and was accommodated in the federal cabinet in place of the late minister.
Since the Pakistan Peoples Party lost power last year, however, risks have increased, Bhatti said.
Two months before Shahbaz Bhatti was killed, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim, was assassinated on 4 January 2011.
Morning Star News said Al Qaeda-link ed militants targeted both men for their criticism of the country's blasphemy laws and for their defense of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother sentenced to death for allegedly blaspheming Islam's prophet. She has been waiting for three years to have her appeal heard.