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Christian Couple On Death Row for ‘Blasphemy’

A Christian couple, Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, are currently facing the death penalty.  They are charged with sending ‘blasphemous’ texts to a mosque cleric from a phone sim card registered in Shagufta’s name.  The couple has consistently denied all allegations.  They believe that somehow Shagufta’s National Identity Card was compromised and misused against them.

A brother, Joseph, has said he doubted they were literate enough even to have written the abusive messages.  Shagufta previously worked as a caretaker in a Christian school; her husband Shafqat is partially paralyzed.  On a visit to jail, Joseph was told that his brother had been tortured into making a false confession.  He said that his leg was broken during the brutal and severe police beating.

The couple have four children who cry for their parents.  They miss them and want to see them again.  One can only surmise the traumatization they have experienced through the arrest and ongoing ordeal their parents have endured.

The couple has been imprisoned since 2013; and were convicted and sentenced to death in April of 2014. Six years later, their appeal was scheduled to be heard in 2020, but due to the outbreak of Covid-19, it was postponed.  Further hearings were scheduled in 2021, but at the last two hearings, the judges left the court before hearing the appeal against their death sentence, declaring that the court hours had concluded for the day.  This appears to be a concerning pattern of delay tactics. 

It has been documented that postponements have been a factor in other blasphemy cases, as judges are often reluctant to pass sentence.  They are often pressured and threatened or intimidated into sentencing those accused, including death threats.  Defense lawyers have been killed in court, and witnesses and families of victims often face these threats as well; and have had to go into hiding.

Their lawyer, Saif ul Malook also represented Asia Bibi, who is another Christian woman who had a death sentence for blasphemy successfully overturned.  He has said that the evidence against the couple is deeply flawed.  Though blasphemy is punishable by death in this country, no one has ever been executed for it.  However, dozens have been killed by mobs after simply being accused of the crime.

When someone is arrested after being accused of blasphemy, this can be without even a warrant.  Often giving in to pressure from angry crowds, and religious clerics and their followers, their cases are passed on for prosecution without a careful look at the actual evidence.  Unfortunately, once charged, they can be denied bail, and face lengthy and unfair trials.  These trials of people accused of serious charges, including blasphemy, can take many years to conclude in Pakistan’s criminal justice system, while they sit incarcerated without recourse.

Because of this threat of violence for all involved in the case, fear pervades those working in Pakistan’s criminal justice system and prevents the proper carrying out of their roles and functions with impartiality.

In a report published in 2016 by Amnesty International, it was shown how the blasphemy laws enable abuse and violate Pakistan’s international legal obligations to respect and protect human rights, including freedom of religion of belief and of opinion and expression.  It also showed how the laws have been used to target some of the most vulnerable people in society, including members of religious minorities.  Pakistan’s Supreme Court has acknowledged that “the majority of blasphemy cases are based on false accusations” and are driven by ulterior motives.  Amnesty International has found that such motives are rarely scrutinized by the authorities and can vary: from professional rivalry; to personal or religious disputes; to seeking economic gain.

Pakistan: report by Rubina Bhatti 

Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, a Pakistani married couple in their 30s, were sentenced to death for blasphemy in April 2014. Shagufta allegedly sent blasphemous text messages to a local cleric and a lawyer.

LATEST NEWS (OCTOBER 2020): Their appeal hearing has been postponed repeatedly. Shagufta and Shafqat’s case was due to be heard on 22 October but the bench was not available and the case was postponed again.

Shafqat is paralysed from the waist down, having fractured his spine in an accident in 2004. He has spent months in hospital because of extremely painful bedsores all over his body. Shagufta and Shafqat lived with their children in a church compound in Gojra, Punjab Province, and she supported the family by working as a cleaner. They are being held in different prisons about 250 km apart and have not seen each other since 2014: Shafqat is in Faisalabad District Jail, while Shagufta is in Multan Jail, where Asia Bibi was imprisoned – during the last phase of Asia’s detention, they were cell neighbours. Shagufta and Shafqat are both reported to be suffering from depression. Their four children, who are being cared for by their paternal aunt, are unable to visit for safety reasons.

The case began in June 2013, when Muslim cleric Muhammad Hussain said he was leading prayers at a Gojra mosque when he received a blasphemous text from a phone allegedly registered in Shagufta’s name. He said he showed the text to other clerics and then approached his lawyer. He and the lawyer claimed they both received further inflammatory messages, written in English.

Shagufta and Shafqat were arrested and charged with “insulting the Qur’an” and “insulting the Prophet”. The couple’s lawyer Nadeem Hassan said that to appease mobs led by Islamist clerics, the police tortured Shafqat into confessing before a judicial magistrate that he had sent the messages, but that he retracted his statement when lawyers requested the session judge to record his statement again. Shafqat told lawyers that the police tortured him in front of his wife and children and threatened to torture his wife if he did not confess. He said, “To save my wife, I confessed.”

Shagufta said a friend of complainant Muhammad Hussain colluded with him to steal Shagufta’s National Identity Card, used it to buy a SIM card in her name and used that to send the texts that would implicate the couple. Shagufta and Shafqat stated that Muhammad Hussain’s motive was revenge after a minor quarrel between their children and their neighbours six months previously.

The messages were written in English, but Shagufta and Shafqat have said they could not have written the texts because they are illiterate. They are unable to write proper Urdu, let alone English.

Local police registered a blasphemy case against the couple on the complaint of Muhammad Hussain and lawyer Anwar Mansoor Goraya. Gojra City Police arrested Shagufta and Shafqat on 21 July 2013 and charged them with blasphemy under Sections 295-B (insulting the Koran, punishable by life imprisonment) and 295-C (insulting Mohammad, punishable by death). On 4 April 2014, a sessions court in Toba Tek Singh, Punjab Province, sentenced them to death.

Throughout the trial, the complainants’ lawyers intimidated the judge by repeatedly proclaiming Quranic references calling for death to blasphemers. Nadeem Hassan said, “Judge Mian Amir Habib was clearly intimidated by advocate Touqir Ashraf and some other Islamist lawyers from Lahore who were representing the complainants. These men kept pressuring the judge during the entire trial, which was conducted in prison due to fears for the couple’s security.”

Farrukh Saif of the Farrukh Saif Foundation, an NGO involved in defending the couple, said: “There was no evidence that the text messages came from a phone owned by the couple. In the first place they had lost the phone some months before July 2013 and secondly there was no SIM card in their names.”

Lawyer Nadeem Hassan said, “The police failed to recover the SIM allegedly registered in Shagufta’s name from the couple’s possession… Shagufta had told the police that her mobile phone had been lost for a month, and that she did not know who might have sent the alleged messages.”

The couple’s case has been taken up by Saiful Malook, the lawyer who secured Asia Bibi’s acquittal in October 2018.

Appeal

Shagufta and Shafqat appealed to Lahore High Court on the grounds that the witnesses produced by the prosecution during the trial were related to the complainant and were therefore inimical towards the couple. The appeal stated: “Their statements require independent corroboration, which is lacking in this case.”

They also appealed on the basis that there is no evidence that they purchased the SIM and that as they are both illiterate they could not have sent the messages, which were written in English. Their appeal hearing has been postponed repeatedly.

Family

Shagufta and Shafqat have four children, Zain (15), Danish (12), Joshua (10), and Sarah (9). The family lived in Gojra until the time of the blasphemy allegation, but for security reasons, the children had to be moved to Toba Tek Singh after huge protests over the incident. They are now being cared for by their paternal aunt.

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