A Catholic couple have been acquitted of blasphemy charges and freed from death row in Pakistan after a seven-year battle of court appeals.
The Lahore high court on June 3 acquitted Shafqat Emmanuel and his wife, Shagufta Kausar, who were accused of sending text messages in English to a Muslim man, insulting the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an. The couple are illiterate and do not speak English.
In July 2013, Muhammad Hussein said he was praying in a mosque in the city of Gojra in Punjab Province when blasphemous text messages appeared on his phone. Police said the messages were sent from a number matching Shagufta Kausar’s cell phone. She told the police that the phone had been lost for a month and that she did not know who might have sent the messages, according to World Watch Monitor and Christianity Today. But police detained the couple, along with their four children, and pressured them to name someone who could have sent the messages. After a trial, the couple were sentenced to death for blasphemy in April 2014.
Section 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code recommend life imprisonment and the death penalty, respectively, for blasphemy. There have been countless calls from advocates around the world to rescind such laws, in Pakistan and elsewhere. The case of Asia Bibi, who was ultimately acquitted of blasphemy charges and freed from death row, brought prominence to the issue.
The high court in Lahore threw out Emmanuel and Kausar’s case because the SIM card from where the blasphemous text was sent had not been sent for a forensic test. Without a forensic test, it is not admissible in the court, said the couple’s lawyer, Khalil Tahir Sandhu.
Now that the couple are free, some are concerned about their safety, as mobs sometimes take justice into their own hands in these cases.
“They have been in danger, but leading a normal life for these victims is very difficult, even though the High Court has released them,” Fr. Bonnie Mendes, a priest of the city of Faisalabad, told Fides, the information service of the Pontifical Mission Societies. “We hope and pray that they find a safe place to live.”
Kashif Aslam, deputy director of the National Commission “Justice and Peace” of the Pakistani Catholic Bishops, told Fides that people in Pakistan sometimes abuse the blasphemy law “for personal quarrels or rivalries.”
“Many of the people accused of blasphemy are sentenced to death, there are even extrajudicial executions,” Aslam said. “We should prevent and approve norms and mechanisms to guarantee that the law is not abused or exploited.”
Sandhu, the couple’s lawyer, also suggested that the blasphemy laws be changed to account for false accusations.
“Justice is done, but who will give this innocent couple eight years of life back?” he asked, in an interview with Fides. “Who will pay for the false accusations? Who will give eight years of life back to children who grew up without parents and without regular schooling? It is necessary to review the distorted mechanism that leads to such consequences and generates so much suffering for which no one will be identified as responsible.”
“I would suggest changing the law,” Sandhu told AsiaNews, to include “punishment for those who fabricate false cases of blasphemy in personal vendettas.”