A Division Bench of the Lahore High Court (LHC) led by Justice Shahbaz Ali Rizvi will reportedly hear the appeal of Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel, a Christian couple accused of blasphemy, on Wednesday against the death penalty awarded to them in 2014. The duo who hail from Gojra in the Toba Tek Singh district of Punjab in Pakistan has been languishing in jail for the past 6 years.
The poor Christian couple is being represented in LHC by lawyer Saif ul Malook who was successful in overturning the death penalty in the sensational case of Asia Bibi. Interestingly, the judge, Shahbaz Ali Rizvi, who will be hearing the case of the Christian couple on Wednesday had earlier upheld the death penalty that was awarded to Asia Bibi.
According to Malook, the evidence that has been produced to convict Kausar and Emmanuel was weaker than that of Asia’s case. He added that judges are sometimes fearful of being targeted by extremists and therefore may not release suspects falsely convicted of blasphemy. Malook was offered citizenship by the European Union but he instead chose to stay in Pakistan.
Prior to the arrest, Shagufta worked as a caretaker in a nearby Christian school. Her husband who is partially paralysed has reportedly been tortured by the police to make a confession. The duo has been kept in the same prison cell where Asia Bibi was lodged. They have four children whom they did not meet ever since their incarceration. Christians constitute 1.6% of the population and are largely impoverished in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
The Alleged Blasphemous Texts
As per the complaint, one Muhammad Hussain, a local Imam, had received blasphemous text messages from Shagufta’s phone when he was praying at a mosque. Hussain then showed those messages to his friends Muhammad Shabbir and Khalid Maqsood. When he approached a lawyer, Hussain received five more messages. Even his lawyer received 3-4 messages on his mobile phone.
Reportedly, the number was registered in the name of the wife Shagufta Kausar. According to her brother Joseph who has been traumatised by the incident, the couple were illiterate and could not type the contentious blasphemous messages in English. Their hopes of a fair trial have increased, post the verdict in the Pakistan Supreme Court’s verdict in the Asia Bibi case.
The duo had accused their Christian neighbour of trying to frame them in the case by purchasing a SIM card in the name of Shagufta Kausar and sending the controversial texts. Reportedly, the accused engaged in a verbal confrontation with their neighbour 8-9 months before the case. They alleged that the neighbour who was employed at her workplace got hold of a copy of her national identity card (CNIC) and sent the messages in collusion with Muhammad Hussain.
Under Section 173 Code of Criminal procedure (CrPC), the police contended that the accused had confessed to the crime and would face trial. The duo was handed the death sentence by an additional district and sessions judge of Toba Tek Singh on April 4, 2014, and asked to pay 1,00,000 Pakistani rupees each.
The Appeal for Justice
While the prosecutor claimed that the SIM card was bought by Kausar and Emmanuel, their counsel Malook informed the Court that Emmanuel was paralysed and that he could not walk or move. He stated that the couple was illiterate and hence could not send messages in English. Malook further argued that there was no evidence which suggested that the SIM was purchased by the accused from a franchise. Besides, the appeal highlighted that the trial court judgment resulted in a miscarriage of justice as the Judge relied on ‘surmises and conjectures’ instead of solid evidence.
Malook emphasised how Section 196 CrPC was not followed in the case as the FIR was lodged by a private individual and not a competent authority. Besides, the witnesses were related to the complainant and hence their testimonies required independent corroboration, something which was not done in this case. The appeal stated that the evidence was ‘shaky’ and unreliable.
Blasphemy in Pakistan
The blasphemy law, constituted under Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code states, ”Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” According to human rights activists, the draconian law is often used to settle personal scores and target religious minorities in Pakistan. While none has been executed so far, around 80 people are still incarcerated under the said law.