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“Blasphemous” Pakistani couple tell of their extraordinary escape from death row

“Blasphemous” Pakistani couple tell of their extraordinary escape from death row

  • Couple speak out after first year of safety in Europe, despite death threats from mobs in their home country for their “blasphemy”
  • New Documentary by ADF International, directed by Emma Webb, released to mark UN International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief (22 August)

LONDON (22 August 2022) – In their first ever English-language interview, Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel give a personal insight into their journey from facing the death-by-hanging penalty in Lahore, to finding refuge in Europe, as a consequence of Pakistan’s notorious “blasphemy” laws.

“We are so relieved to finally be free. The last eight years have been an unspeakable ordeal, but we are so happy to be reunited with our children. We are very grateful that so many people, especially the teams from ADF International and the Jubilee Campaign, helped and protected us by bringing us to safety. Although we will miss our country, we are happy to finally be somewhere safe. Hopefully, the blasphemy laws in Pakistan will soon be abolished, so others won’t suffer the same fate as Shagufta and I,” commented Shafqat Emmanuel.

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The Catholic couple, alongside their four children, were helped by ADF International to reach safety in Europe after a court in Lahore acquitted them of their charges, under pressure from the European Union and other international entities.

Giving voice to “an unspeakable ordeal”

In discussion with free speech advocate Emma Webb, Shagufta and Shafqat speak out in the new documentary about the moment they were arrested in June 2013 for allegedly sending a blasphemous text to a Muslim Cleric. Both were beaten, arrested, and charged with blasphemy. Shafqat Emmanuel was already wheelchair bound at the time of arrest.

“The persecution of blasphemers is not something of the past, nor is it as far away as we allow ourselves to think. Shagufta and Shafqat’s faith in the face of death is not only harrowing and miraculous. It serves as a warning to complacent Western nations of the real, often murderous, consequences accusations of blasphemy carry – as we just saw in New York, in the attempted murder of author Salman Rushdie,” commented Emma Webb, who directed the film by ADF International.

“Our society, in failing to show the steadfastness and courage of Shagufta and Shafqat, set’s our culture down a dangerous path – making it easier for accusations of blasphemy to be weaponised against political or religious opponents, free thinkers, and creatives.

“In many ways, we have internalised censorship instead of responding to the realities of the problem worldwide. Their story serves as both a light to the world, and a warning,” she continued.

Watch the full documentary here.

The couple, being illiterate themselves, would not have been able to use the Latin alphabet in which the text was written. According to Shagufta, her phone had been missing for a month at the time of the incident. It is uncertain who sent the messages and for what reason.

“I saw the police beating my father. He is paralyzed from the waist down, so he didn’t feel pain in his legs, but they also hit him in his face and beat him with gun butts on his back. They forced him to say that he had committed blasphemy,” said Zahmat Akhtar, son of the imprisoned couple, reflecting on the time of the arrest.

The documentary features insights from Zahmat, who was deprived of living with his parents throughout their seven-year-ordeal, as well as from lawyers and experts who were closely involved in supporting the couple’s case for freedom.

Punishable by death

Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan, and though no one has been formally executed for it, dozens have been killed by mobs after being accused of the crime. Shafqat was tortured into making a false confession. They beat him and threatened to strip his wife naked and let her walk across town. A session court sentenced them both to death. They launched an appeal in the Lahore High Court, which acquitted them on 3rd June 2021 of all charges.

The family faced death threats by extremists despite being acquitted.

“We are delighted that Shagufta and Shafqat were, at long last, released and have reached safety. Sadly, their case is not an isolated incident but testifies to the plight that many Christians and other religious minorities experience in Pakistan today. While the right to religious freedom is protected by the Pakistani constitution, many face severe persecution and denial of their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” said Tehmina Arora, Director of Advocacy, Asia with ADF International, who supported the couple.

Rising Violence

Recent reports show that violence carried out by governments against religious minorities is on the rise. The Pew Research Center reported that over 95 countries have been found to unjustly use government force, such as physical abuse, to coerce religious communities. Among these countries, at least 20 have reported cases of violence that resulted in death.

Non-state actors are also responsible for acts of violence against religious minorities. Cases involving physical violence from non-state actors have increased at least 19 percent since 2017. Radical extremists in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, such as India and Pakistan, are largely responsible for these attacks. Mob violence, which regularly occurs in over 41 countries, is also used to intimidate and harm religious minorities.

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