A Pakistani Christian couple sentenced to death for allegedly sending text messages blaspheming the prophet of Islam will finally get their day in court after languishing in prison for five years.
Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, from the eastern town of Gojra, were sentenced in 2014 after they were accused of sending texts insulting Muhammad to a cleric at a local mosque, according to persecution watchdog group International Christian Concern.
After five years of waiting behind bars, their case will be heard on June 25 and presided over by Judge Qasim Muhammad Khan in the Lahore High Court.
The accused couple have denied the allegations, saying that the accusation was meant to punish them over a dispute some eight months before between their children and the Muslim cleric's children.
Shagufta Kausar previously worked as a cleaner and servant at a church school. Her husband has been paralyzed from the waist down since 2004 following an accident that fractured his spine. At the time of the accident, the couple were living with their four young children in a church compound.
In 2013, Muhammad Hussain, the mosque cleric, claimed he was undertaking prayers when he received a text from an unknown mobile number, which contained blasphemous remarks.
He allegedly showed the text to two other mosque clerics before approaching his counsel for legal proceedings. Then, he and his lawyer claimed they both then received more blasphemous messages. However, the texts were alleged to have been written in English, and both Shafqat and Shagufta are illiterate and neither have a knowledge of English or its alphabet.
Police registered the blasphemy case following the cleric's complaint and the Christian couple was arrested on July 21, 2013, under charges of “insulting the Quran” and “insulting the prophet.”
But Nadeem Hassan, the High Court lawyer for the couple, explained that the offending text message originated from a mobile phone that had been lost beforehand.
He added that a "bogus SIM card" was presented as evidence. “There is weak substantial legal evidence against the Christian couple, especially since the police failed to produce the sim card which was reportedly used for circulating the derogatory texts,” Hassan told ICC.
“It is a false accusation against the Christian couple which is based on religious hatred and is being used to settle personal grudges,” Hassan added.
Hassan also told ICC that the mental state of Shafaqat has drastically declined since his imprisonment: “He also struggles to cope with being paralyzed and living in jail,” he said. “The court has to consider the effect of keeping physically and mentally disabled victims in jail. It is very obvious that the law requires serious revision and amendments.”
Shagufta Kausar was in the same cell as Asia Bibi in the Central jail of Multan. After spending 10 years in jail, Asia Bibi was released last month and now lives in Canada.
ICC’s South Asia Regional Manager, William Stark, said Pakistan's strict laws against defaming Islam are often used to settle personal disputes and to discriminate against Christians, who make up just 1.6% of the country’s population.
“ICC is in prayer for Shagufta and Shafqat and their family as they prepare for another court session,” he said. “The abuse of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws must be curbed. Too often these laws have been a tool in the hands of extremists seeking to stir up religiously motivated violence against minority communities. Without real reform, religious minorities, including Christians, will face more false blasphemy accusations and the extreme violence that often accompanies these accusations.”
Pakistan, a 96% Muslim-majority country, ranks as the fifth worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA. It was also named last year by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom violations.