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Religious freedom | Shagufta and Shafqat: Pakistan

Pakistani Couple Cleared of Blasphemy Charges Escapes Death Sentence


Topic | Persecution

The Pakistani Christian couple Shagufta and Shafqat languished on death row for seven years on false blasphemy charges. The Lahore High Court overturned their death sentence in early June 2021. With the support of ADF International they have made it safely to Europe.

Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel were arrested and charged with blasphemy on 21 July 2013. A session court sentenced them to death by hanging in 2014. The parents of four faced death threats after the news of their acquittal broke.

Zahmat Akhtar, son of the imprisoned couple, remembers when the police came to arrest his parents in 2013: “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”.

"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."

Case summary

The couple had been living in poverty with their four children in a mission compound of the Gojra Church in Punjab, Pakistan. On 18 June 2013, allegedly blasphemous text messages were sent to a cleric and a lawyer from a phone allegedly registered in Shagufta’s name. Shagufta and her husband Shafqat were arrested and charged with blasphemy on 21 July 2013. The couple is illiterate and would not have been able to write any text messages at all. Shagufta claimed that her phone had been missing for a month at the time of the incident.

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 Shagufta naked and make her walk across town. A session court sentenced Shagufta and Shafqat to death. They launched an appeal in the Lahore High Court, which acquitted them of all charges in June 2021.

European Parliament called for overturning of death sentence

On 29 April 2021, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the Pakistani authorities to release Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar immediately and unconditionally and to overturn their death sentence. It also urged Pakistan to repeal sections 295-B and C of the national Penal Code and to respect and uphold the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and expression throughout the country, effectively banishing the use of blasphemy laws. Read the full resolution “Blasphemy laws in Pakistan, in particular the case of Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel” here.

Threat to life despite acquittal

Highlighting the problems surrounding accusations of blasphemy, even in cases that eventually result in acquittal, the couple’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, said:

“Shagufta and Shafqat are incredibly relieved to have finally been acquitted of these unfounded blasphemy charges. The many delays to the hearing of their appeal caused them a lot of suffering. These cases are very difficult to litigate, due to the concern for security. There is a very real threat to the life of the clients and the lawyers.”

Shagufta was held in the same prison as Asia Bibi. In a case that received global headlines, Bibi was accused of blasphemy and held on death row for eight years until she was acquitted in 2018. Her case serves as a well-known example of the current threat to religious minorities in the region. After her acquittal, there were violent demonstrations across Pakistan threatening her life and she was forced to flee the country.

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