The Lahore High Court (LHC) today acquitted a Christian couple sentenced to death on charges of blaspheming Islam, their attorney said.
Justice Shahbaz Ali Rizvi and Justice Tariq Saleem Sheikh accepted an appeal challenging the death sentence and acquitted Shagufta Kausar, 52, and her husband, 49-year-old Shafqat Emmanuel, on the basis of “adulterated evidence and manipulated testimonies of the prosecution witnesses,” said attorney Saif Ul Malook.
The couple had been sentenced to death seven years ago in a case that drew international condemnation of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
“It came as a surprise to me, because the LHC had been delaying the hearing for over six years on one pretext or the other,” Malook told Morning Star News. “I believe that the hearing was expedited due to international pressure on the Pakistani government, particularly a resolution passed by the European Union Parliament in April which called for a review of the GSP+ status granted to Pakistan in view of an ‘alarming’ increase in the use of blasphemy accusations in the country.”
The EU resolution expressed particular concern regarding the case of Kausar and Emmanuel, stating, “The evidence on which the couple were convicted can be considered deeply flawed.”
It had noted that the couple allegedly had argued with the accuser shortly before the accusations were made. The EU resolution, which passed overwhelmingly, 662 to 3 with 26 abstaining, also stated that the couple’s appeal had been “postponed multiple times.”
“Nonetheless, the verdict has been given on merit because the court noted the mala fide of the accusers and how the couple was tortured into confessing the false blasphemy allegation,” Malook said.
The court’s detailed verdict will be released soon, Malook said, adding, “I’m very happy that the court gave a compassionate hearing to my arguments regarding the adulteration of the evidence and testimonies of the prosecution witnesses.”
As of this writing, Kausar was still at the Central Prison for Women in Multan, while husband Emmanuel was in Central Jail Faisalabad.
The couple was convicted in 2014 of sending blasphemous text messages insulting the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, to a local imam and the then-president of the local bar council from a phone number registered in Kausar’s name. The mother of four children worked as a cleaner at a local missionary school in Gojra. Her husband is paralyzed from the waist down and cannot work.
They were charged under Sections 295-B (insulting the Koran, punishable by life imprisonment), 295-C (insulting Muhammad, punishable by death) and 25-D of The Telegraph Act of 1985. Section 25-D recommends a maximum of three years for intentionally “causing annoyance.”
According to Malook, who won freedom for Pakistan’s most high-profile blasphemy convict, Aasiya Noreen (better known as Asia Bibi) in 2018, the prosecution lawyers from the Khatam-e-Nabuwwat Lawyers Forum did their best to intimidate the judges during the three days of hearing, “but fortunately the judges did not succumb to their pressure.”
“It’s possible that the Forum led by Advocate Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry will challenge the LHC’s decision in the Supreme Court, but I don’t think it will hold due to the weak grounds,” he said.
He added that, although delayed, the acquittal highlighted that most blasphemy cases were rooted in personal vendettas.
“It’s unfortunate that innocent people are forced to rot in jails for years on false accusations of blasphemy,” he said. “This practice needs to stop now. The charge is so serious that even judges are fearful of conducting hearings and giving decisions on merit.”
One of the justices in the appeal, Rizvi, was the same judge who had rejected Asia Bibi’s appeal to the LHC against her death sentence.
Malook said that, like Asia Bibi, the couple will need to be granted asylum abroad due to serious threat to their lives in Pakistan.
“The forces bankrolling and supporting misuse of blasphemy laws have suffered a major setback due to the couple’s acquittal, and I’m very concerned about their safety,” he said.
A source in the government told Morning Star News that security agencies have been directed to ensure protection of the couple and their lawyer.
“This case is being directly monitored by the government after it was raised in the EU resolution,” the source said on condition of anonymity. “The expedited hearing of the appeal was also due to the government’s intervention.”
Church officials and human rights groups say blasphemy allegations are frequently used not only to settle personal scores but to target religious minorities in Pakistan.
Bishop Azad Marshall, president of the Church of Pakistan, welcomed the acquittal of the couple.
“While it is heartening to note that the court has delivered justice after eight years, our hearts are weeping over the suffering the poor family has endured all these years,” he told Morning Star News. “This atrocity in the name of religion must end now.”
Blatant abuse of the blasphemy laws has imperiled the lives of all Pakistanis irrespective of their faiths, Marshall said.
“Mere allegations are enough to destroy the lives of the accused and their families, and it’s time the Pakistani government deals with this critical issue on priority,” he added.
The senior church leader said that while the high court has admitted the innocence of the Christian couple, it should have ordered action against all those involved in framing them in the false allegation.
“Blasphemy allegations must be promptly and thoroughly investigated by an independent and impartial authority, and false accusers must be given harsh punishments if the government intends to thwart misuse of the blasphemy laws,” he said.
He added that the law should be amended so that the FIRs in all blasphemy cases are registered only after permission from the concerned government body before courts take them up.
“We have been raising this issue on all forums, but it seems the government takes selective action only when it comes under international pressure, as has been seen in the cases of Asia Bibi and now in Shagufta and Shafqat’s case,” Marshall said. “When we raise our voices against such cases, we are told that we are maligning Pakistan’s name in the world. They don’t realize that unless the government acts against the misuse of the blasphemy laws and other issues like forced conversion of underage minority girls, Pakistan’s image will not improve internationally.”
A Senate Special Committee on Human Rights and the Islamabad High Court in 2018 recommended that those making false blasphemy accusations be given the same punishments as those for blasphemy convictions, but the government dismissed the recommendation. The recommendation also stated that anyone registering a blasphemy case at a police station must bring two witnesses.
While punishment for blasphemy ranges from several years in prison to death in Pakistan, a person making a false accusation faces potential punishment of only six months in prison or a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$6). Successive governments have acknowledged that the blasphemy laws are blatantly misused, but little effort has been made to stop the abuses.
Rights activists say it’s unlikely that any government will move to repeal or amend the blasphemy laws due to fierce Islamist sentiments in the Muslim-majority country. They say Pakistani authorities must be urged to immediately implement effective procedural and institutional safeguards at the investigative, prosecutorial and judicial levels to prevent abuse of these laws.
At least 35 people in prison in 2020 received death sentences for blasphemy, compared with 29 the previous year, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2020 International Religious Freedom Report, released last month. The report cites the Center for Social Justice, a national Non-Governmental Organization, as reporting that at least 199 people were accused of blasphemy offenses in 202, the highest number of blasphemy cases in a single year in the country’s history. Most of the accused were Shia (70 percent of cases) and Ahmadis (20 percent), according to the report.
The U.S. State Department in December re-designated Pakistan among nine other “Countries of Particular Concern” for severe violations of religious freedom. Previously Pakistan had been added to the list on Nov. 28, 2018.
Pakistan ranked fifth on Christian support organization Open Doors 2021 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. — Morning Star News
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Photo: Shafqat Emmanuel and wife Shagufta Kausar. (File photo courtesy of family)