Pakistani court overturns death row Christian couple's blasphemy conviction

·3-min read

Lahore, Jun 4 (PTI) A top Pakistani court here has set aside a death sentence handed down to a Christian couple by a lower court seven years ago and acquitted them of blasphemy charges, citing “lack of evidence”.

Shafqat Emanuel Masih and his wife Shagufta Kausar are expected to be freed after languishing in jail for seven years awaiting execution.

Masih, a watchman of Gojra’s Saint Cathedral School in Toba Tek Singh district, and Kausar were arrested in July, 2013 on the charges of 'sending blasphemous text messages to complainants -- shopkeeper Malik Mohammad Hussain and Gojra tehsil bar’s former president Anwar Mansoor Gorya.

The complainants had alleged that the couple committed blasphemy in the text messages. However, Shagufta could not even read and write as she is illiterate. Her name was not initially mentioned in the FIR.

Additional district and sessions (Toba Tek Singh) judge Amer Habib in 2014 sentenced the Christian couple to death for blasphemy and fined them Rs 100,000 each in the light of testimony of the complainants and “confession” of the couple.

The couple, in its appeal to the Lahore High Court (LHC), said that the police had taken their confession “under duress”.

The LHC acquitted them of the blasphemy charges because of “want of evidence”.

Setting aside the trial court's verdict against the couple, the LHC's two-judge bench comprising Justice Syed Shahbaz Ali Rizvi and Justice Tariq Saleem Sheikh cited “lack of evidence” in the case and acquitted them.

According to the couple’s counsel, the prosecution could not establish that the mobile number, from which the complainant received the purported text messages, belonged to either of the appellants.

The prosecution could not present any cogent evidence of the alleged offences mentioned in the FIR, he said.

The counsel further said that in jail, Masih suffered from paraplegia due to a thoracic spinal cord injury by a firearm in 2005 and bed sores.

He said Masih is still admitted to the jail hospital due to his disability.

The couple, who have four children, is likely to be freed from the jail next week.

A couple of months ago, the European Parliament had adopted a resolution calling for a review of the GSP+ status granted to Pakistan in view of an 'alarming' increase in the use of blasphemy accusations in the country, among other concerns.

The resolution expressed particular concern over this case, saying 'the evidence on which the couple were convicted can be considered deeply flawed”.

The resolution said that the Christian couple had allegedly been in an argument with the accuser not long before the accusations were made.

The resolution, which was passed 662 to 3, had also observed that the Christian couple's appeal had been 'postponed multiple times'.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws and their prescribed punishments are considered extremely severe. The people accused of blasphemy are usually deprived of the right to a counsel of their choice as most lawyers refuse to take up such sensitive cases.

The blasphemy laws are colonial-era legislation but they were amended by former military dictator General Ziaul Haq which increased the severity of prescribed punishments.

The rights campaigners say blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal disputes in the Muslim-majority country.

A US government advisory panel report says Pakistan used blasphemy laws more than any other country in the world.

Mere allegations of blasphemy have triggered violence against minorities like Christians. Several persons accused of committing blasphemy have been lynched in recent years.

Christians constitute around 2 per cent of the population in Pakistan. Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad have a large Christian population.

There are many Christian villages in the Punjab heartland, while there is also a sizable population in the deeply conservative north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, particularly in Peshawar city. PTI MZ CPS AKJ CPS

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