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Pakistan Christian pair cleared of blasphemy after years on death row

Shafqat Emmanuel and wife Shagufta Kausar. (File photo courtesy of family)

LAHORE, Pakistan (BP) – A Pakistani Christian couple acquitted of blasphemy after seven years in prison should get government protection upon their release, international religious liberty advocates urge.

The Lahore High Court on Thursday (June 3) acquitted Shagufta Kausar, 52, and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel, 49, of blasphemy charges that placed them on death row in 2014 and separated them from their four children. Blasphemy cases, often prosecuted against Christians based on hearsay, are considered a common form of Christian persecution in the predominantly Islamic country.

“It’s unfortunate that innocent people are forced to rot in jails for years on false accusations of blasphemy,” the couple’s attorney Saif Ul Malook said in public comments upon their release. “This practice needs to stop now. The charge is so serious that even judges are fearful of conducting hearings and giving decisions on merit.”

International Christian Concern (ICC), Amnesty International and the Jubilee Campaign are among groups urging the government to provide protection for the couple that could be targeted by Islamic extremists upon their release.

“It is great to see such a prolonged blasphemy case justly resolved. However, we remain deeply concerned for the safety of the Christian couple and their family,” ICC Regional Manager William Stark said in a press release. “Extremists in Pakistan are known to target individuals accused of religious crimes, like blasphemy, even after they have been acquitted. The abuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws must be curbed, and false allegations must be rooted out and punished.

“Too often these laws have been a tool in the hands of extremists seeking to stir up religiously motivated violence against minorities,” Stark said. “Without reform, religious minorities will continue to face false blasphemy accusations and the violence that often accompanies these accusations.”

The acquitted couple were awaiting release from separate prisons Thursday, Kausar from Central Prison for Women in Multan and Emmanuel from Central Jail in Faisalabad. Emmanuel is paralyzed from the waist down, having fractured his spine in 2004. A relative has cared for the couple’s children since their arrest.

Kausar and Emmanuel were convicted of committing blasphemy in text messages to a Muslim cleric in 2013. The text messages were said to be in English from a phone registered to Kausar, while neither she nor her husband speak or write English. Malook, their attorney, said little or no evidence was offered against the couple, and that the charges likely stemmed from a minor dispute between children in the two families.

“It’s a bogus case,” the Catholic Asian News quoted Malook before the acquittal. “A session judge who visited the Faisalabad jail described (Emmanuel) as a hopeless case.” Being Christian and accused of blasphemy, Malook said, is “itself sufficient for being hated by police, judges, lawyers and the overall society.”

Malook is the same attorney who represented Pakistani Christian Aasiya Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi, securing her release in 2018. Two government leaders who advocated for Bibi’s release during her eight-year ordeal were murdered in 2011. Bibi was held in a secure location until 2019, when she safely relocated to Canada.

At least 35 people were sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan in 2020, up from 29 in 2019, the U.S. State Department said in its 2020 International Religious Freedom Report. The State Department continues to designate Pakistan among 10 countries of particular concern for religious persecution.

Pakistan ranks fifth among 50 countries Open Doors USA judged the most difficult for Christians in its 2021 World Watch List.