A Christian couple in Pakistan have spent the last six years in prison on a charge of blasphemy. According to the couple’s lawyer, the evidence used to convict them was “flawed” and many have likened their case to that of Asia Bibi. Now, the couple’s ordeal may be coming to an end via a trial in the Lahore high court.
“Kausar is lodged in the same death cell, where Bibi was imprisoned before her acquittal in the blasphemy case by the Supreme Court late last year,” the couple’s lawyer, Saif ul Malook, told the Express Tribune.
Malook is the same lawyer that managed to procure justice for Asia Bibi after a years-long battle. Malook believes the case against the couple is even more flimsy than that of the one seeking to incriminate Asia Bibi.
As ChurchLeaders reported last year, Shagufta Kausar and her husband, Shafqat Emmanuel, were accused of sending text messages blaspheming the prophet Muhammad to a Muslim cleric in 2014. The couple’s accusers say the text messages came from a phone registered under Shagufta’s name. However, Shagufta’s brother, Joseph, claims the couple is barely literate—certainly not literate enough to be able to send the messages, which were written in English.
Speaking to the BBC, Joseph indicated the couple suffered abuse after they were arrested. Shafqat, who is partially paralyzed, told Joseph that he was beaten so badly by policemen that his leg was broken. This tactic was used to coerce Shafqat into a false confession, Joseph believes.
The couple have offered a theory for how the phone registered under their name came into play. Apparently the couple’s children had gotten into an argument with the Muslim cleric’s children some six to eight months prior to the texts being sent. Unfortunately, they also had a disagreement with their neighbor, who is also a Christian and with whom Shagufta worked. They think the neighbor could have gotten a copy of Shagufta’s identity card at work and bought the phone using her name, then colluded with the cleric to frame the couple with the blasphemous texts.
Indeed, human rights advocates, including Malook, believe that most blasphemy charges in Pakistan are the result of personal disputes or religious persecution. As the crime of blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan, it represents a particular threat to religious minorities and a temptation to those looking to settle a personal score.
While the couple will hopefully receive a fair trial later this month, they will by no means be out of harm’s way, even if they are acquitted of the charge. Malook explained to the BBC that while no one has been executed by the justice system in Pakistan for a blasphemy conviction, many of the accused have died at the hands of angry mobs and vigilantes. In fact, when Asia Bibi was first acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2018, hardline Muslim groups organized massive riots and offered a bounty for her death, by whatever means possible. The riots were so intense and widely supported that they managed to block the road linking Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, with the city of Rawalpindi, a major thorough-fare.
These hardline Muslims hold so much sway in the country that the Supreme Court was forced to reconsider their acquittal of Bibi. Asia Bibi went to trial again in January 2019, and the court decided to uphold their decision. However, the Christian mother spent even more time in seclusion and hiding even after the second acquittal as authorities feared for her safety should she be released to go home. She and her family were offered asylum in a number of countries. They eventually made it to Canada some time last year.
The initiative to free Asia Bibi and rejoin her to her family also cost lives. Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was assassinated after saying he would fight for her acquittal and release. Additionally, Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian himself, was murdered after he indicated he would work to reform the blasphemy laws. Malook himself went into hiding at one point during her trials as multiple threats were levied against him as he fought for her freedom. Additionally, the Pakistani Supreme Court judges who ruled in Bibi’s favor were also threatened.
It is likely anyone siding with Shagufta and Shafqat will face similar persecution from extremist groups. The couple’s final trial in a Lahore high court was originally scheduled for Wednesday, but has been moved to June 25, 2020. Shagufta worked as a caretaker in a Christian school before being arrested. She and Shafqat have four children who, according to Joseph, are traumatized by their parents’ arrest and prolonged absence.