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Pakistani Christians cleared of blasphemy charges escape death sentence

  • The Lahore High Court has acquitted a Pakistani couple of blasphemy charges, overturning a lower court’s death sentence
  • The parents of four were held captive on death row for seven years

PUNJAB (3 June 2021) – The Lahore High Court has overturned a death sentence for a Catholic Pakistani couple. A session court had sentenced Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel to death by hanging in 2014 over blasphemy charges.

“No one should be persecuted because of their faith. This case highlights the abuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. We welcome the Lahore High Court’s decision to overturn the death sentence on Shagufta and Shafqat. This is a great step forward for religious freedom in Pakistan. We hope it will set a precedent by showing how evidence must be evaluated in blasphemy cases,” said Tehmina Arora, Director of Advocacy, Asia, for ADF International, a human rights organisation supporting the couple.

Death sentence over blasphemy charges

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 Kausar’s name. Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel were arrested and charged with blasphemy on 21 July 2013. The couple is illiterate and would most likely not have been able to write any text messages at all. Kauser claimed that 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.

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. Emmanuel had been tortured into making a false confession. They beat him and threatened to strip Kausar naked and let her walk across town. A session court sentenced Kausar and Emmanuel to death. They launched an appeal in the Lahore High Court, which has now acquitted them of all charges.

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.”

Kausar 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.

European Parliament called for overturning of death sentence

On 29 April, 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 “urges 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.

Foto: (c) Kausar

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