PHILADELPHIA: “It does not matter if Shahbaz is not in this world now. No one can stop me from spending the rest of my life in the company of his memories,” said Salma Bhatti, the 39-year-old widow of the former minorities’ minister, who was shot dead on March 2, 2011, after he spoke out against the blasphemy law in Pakistan. Salma now lives in Philadelphia, as she sought asylum in the US in March 2013, two years after her husband’s death. She claims that Shahbaz’s family refuses to recognise her as his widow in order to avoid any claims to his savings or property.
“I’ve told them several times that I don’t want any money or property. I just want small gifts he gave me, some greeting cards and three personal diaries that are in his home in Islamabad,” Salma told The Express Tribune. She said problems arose between Shahbaz’s family and herself on the day of his assassination.
“When he was shot, I was at my mother’s house as she was unwell. I rushed to the hospital and was told he was dead. When I returned to our home, I found that his sister and mother had locked our bedroom,” Salma said.
Salma says she married Shahbaz in December 1995 and while it was not an arranged marriage, his family had reportedly accepted the couple. “We never quarreled and shortly after we married, we set up a rights organisation for minority groups in Pakistan,” she said. “The organisation flourished and no one from Shahbaz’s family was involved in the work. But on the third day after Shahbaz was shot, his brother took control of the organisation.” Salma says documents and records of bank accounts of the organisation are with her and she refuses to hand them over to the Bhatti family unless they also give her some of the mementoes she has requested.
PHOTO: RANA TANVEER
When contacted by The Express Tribune, Akbar Bhatti, Shahbaz’s brother said that Salma is not Shahbaz’s wife. “There is no truth to her claims. She was Shahbaz’s employee, not his wife.” When asked about documentary evidence of their marriage, Akbar said, “The documents might be fake. Shahbaz was not married when he died.”
Salma alleges that Shahbaz’s family has intimidated and threatened her, and she was compelled to seek asylum in the US after receiving death threats from the family. “I live in the US as his widow and I’ll die as his widow,” she insisted. “I will keep struggling to be recognised by the family as his widow.” She says she is not allowed to visit his grave. After she tried to commit suicide two times, Salma’s father admitted her to a psychiatric ward for treatment.
A few months later, she started working with the Christians against Narcotics group in Islamabad. “Shahbaz’s brothers threatened me through the group’s board of governors, saying I should not claim I am his widow. I stayed silent for a year, but then I could not remain silent any longer,” she said.
Salma claims that the family is trying to usurp any income that comes from declaring Shahbaz a saint. On the first anniversary of Shahbaz’s death, Archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh Cardinal Keith O’Brien said he hoped the Church would consider canonising Shahbaz. Salma says the family is constructing a mausoleum for Shahbaz in Khushpur, his ancestral village. “I will not let them make money from his bones,” Salma said. She plans to return to Pakistan to sue Shahbaz’s family.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 25th, 2014.