Pakistan’s Lahore High Court has released a 26-page judgment acquitting a Catholic mother and her partially paralyzed husband who were on death row for seven years after a lower court convicted them of sending blasphemous text messages.
Weeks after overturning the session court’s death sentence for the couple, Shagufta Masih and her husband, Shafqat Emmanuel, who was the watchman of a school in Gojra area of Toba Tek Singh district in Pakistan’s Punjab Province, the high court released the judgment last week, expressing displeasure over the conduct of the trial, The News International reported.
The Catholic couple was arrested in July 2013 under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the session court sentenced them to death by hanging in 2014.
“We are dismayed that the learned additional sessions judge has decided the case in a slipshod manner … The appellants are acquitted of the charge,” reads the judgment.
“This case highlights the abuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws,” said Tehmina Arora, director of Advocacy, Asia, for ADF International, which is supporting the couple.
The acquittal, Arora said, “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,” she added.
“Shagufta and Shafqat are incredibly relieved to have finally been acquitted of these unfounded blasphemy charges,” the couple’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, said.
“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,” he added.
Masih was held in the same prison as Asia Bibi, another woman who was accused of blasphemy and held on death row for eight years until she was acquitted in 2018.
The couple’s appeal was admitted and heard after the European Parliament passed an April 29 resolution calling “on the Pakistani authorities to release Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta [Masih] immediately and unconditionally and to overturn their death sentence.”
The couple was accused by a local imam of committing blasphemy by sending him an offensive text message in 2013.
Maulvi Mohammed Hussain, a leader at a local mosque, claimed that Emmanuel used his wife's cellphone to send an anti-Islamic text message. He later claimed other messages followed. Hussain said he was praying when he received the offensive text message from an unknown number.
The Muslim cleric reportedly showed the text message to two other imams before approaching his counsel for legal proceedings. He and his lawyer later claimed they both received subsequent blasphemous messages.
Masih's brother, Joseph, previously told the BBC that his brother-in-law had been tortured and forced to make a false confession.
The text messages were also alleged to have been written in English. Aside from being illiterate, Shafqat and Shagufta are not familiar with the English language — written or spoken.
The couple’s lawyer, who also assisted in the appeal of Asia Bibi's blasphemy case, said previously that the charges against Masih and Emmanuel were “deeply flawed” and “weaker” than those levied against Bibi.
Although the phone was registered in Masih's name, Malook told the BBC that “in their trial, they suggested a Christian neighbor they had argued with might have purchased a SIM card in Masih's name and sent the messages in order to frame them.”
Christians are often targeted both by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws meant to protect Islamic sensitivities and by hardliners who carry out violence and have killed scores of believers in the past several years.
The blasphemy law, embedded in Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, is frequently misused for personal revenge. It carries no provision to punish a false accuser or a false witness of blasphemy.
Islamist extremists also use the law to target religious minorities — Christians, Shias, Ahmadiyyas and Hindus.