(Ab)use of laws?

May 23, 2021

Shagufta and Emmanuel are on death row in a blasphemy case and waiting for their appeal to be heard. The EU has taken note and passed a resolution calling on Pakistan to revisit its blasphemy laws

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The recent Pakistan-specific resolution of the European Union parliament urging the country to allow more space for religious freedom and stop the alleged abuse of blasphemy laws in the country, has brought the blasphemy case of a Christian couple into the limelight amid concerns for their security and the fear of judicial neglect.

The EU parliament, on April 29, highlighted the situation of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, especially the case of a Christian couple – Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel – waiting for their appeal to be heard by a high court after trial court put both on death row following a conviction on blasphemy charges in 2014. The house also expressed concern at the long delay in hearing of the appeal.

At the EU session, Peter van Dalen, a Dutch MEP (Member European Parliament) who raised this issue of the Christian couple, was seen showing picture of the convicted couple in house, seeking justice for the couple and urging Pakistan to seriously look into such cases of religious persecution.

“Shafqat’s health deteriorated. He fell into a coma and was denied proper medical attention. Is this Pakistani justice to let them die in prison and orphan their four children?” Swedish MEP Charlie Weimers said in the house. He urged the EU to look into growing religious extremism in Pakistan.

Kausar and her husband Emmanuel, who has a disability, were awarded death penalty over blasphemous content in 2014. For two years, they have been waiting for their ‘due appeal’ to be heard. The case has attracted attention of the international community and global human rights watchdogs after some EU parliamentarians took up this matter. Asia Bibi, the Christian woman who left for Canada in 2019 after her acquittal in an internationally highlighted blasphemy case, had initially raised her voice for the couple saying she and Shagufta had been in a jail together for some months.

“When I was at the women’s jail in Multan, I met Shagufta there. Normally, the blasphemy-accused/convicts are kept in a small, dirty death cell and no one can meet the other, especially, when there is a security concern”, Asia Bibi, told The News on Sunday.

“On religious events – like Easter or Christmas, we were also allowed to worship/pray together in jail. That was the first time when I met Shagufta, who told me her story,” she says.

She urges Pakistani authorities to look into the case without delay, adding that this case could be a false case like many others decided on the same lines by Pakistani courts.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” she bemoans.

“Shagufta and Asia remained in one jail for some time. During the last phase of Asia’s detention, Shagufta was her cell neighbour. After the acquittal, Asia Bibi told us to help this woman and her husband,” Muhammad Aman Ullah, a human rights activist who played an important role in Asia Bibi’s case and helped other blasphemy victims to get justice, says.

“Following Asia’s appeal, we referred the matter to the lawyer who had pleaded her case. Together, we highlighted this case at various human rights forums”, he says, while thanking the MEPs who have raised a voice for the couple.

“Most of the blasphemy cases are lodged in Pakistan to settle personal scores and governments in Pakistan seem unable to address the issue fearing political backlash. In many cases the victims have been languishing in jails for years,” says Aman Ullah, urging Pakistani authorities and the international community to work closely together.

The couple was accused of sending a text message via mobile phone to a Muslim cleric in 2013 in Toba Tek Singh district. The text contained derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhamad (peace be upon him). The cleric filed a complaint and the accused were arrested on July 21, 2013. The trial court sentenced them to death under Section 295-C of Pakistan Penal Code in 2014. Emmanuel, whose lower body has been paralysed for several years, was declared the primary accused. His wife was implicated in the case because the mobile phone SIM used to send the blasphemous text was registered in her name.

Nadeem Hassan, who represented the couple, who are not literate, claimed that the blasphemous text was sent from a phone that had been lost. At one point, the couple suspected a member of the Christian community living in the same church compound of implicating them in the case to settle personal scores by using the SIM and stealing Shagufta’s national identity card. However, they were unable to prove this with acceptable evidence.

Over the last two years, hearing of the appeal before Lahore High Court has been adjourned several times. It is still pending. Saiful Malook, currently the couple’s lawyer, who also pleaded the final appeal in the Asia Bibi case, says that the case against this couple is flawed. He says that there is a strong impression that appeals in blasphemy cases are facing delays unlike murder appeals.

Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry represents a forum of lawyers. He is also the counsel for the complainant side in this case. He dismisses the claim that there is an intentional delay in hearing of the appeal from his side.

“We want such cases to be decided as early as possible,” he says, adding, “Unfortunately, in this area where this couple lived there have been a couple of other blasphemy cases of similar nature around that time.”

In spite of the alarmingly high conviction rates in blasphemy cases, he holds on to the belief that “such blasphemous content is deliberately spread by some Christians”. He says some Christian groups have “a pattern of involvement in this”.

“This law has become a tool in the hands of some elements to exploit and leave and settle abroad,” he says.

Malook, meanwhile, has recently written a letter to the Home Department and prison authorities to provide better medical treatment to Emanuel, whose lower body has been paralysed since a bullet injury in 2004.

“Being Christian, poor and accused of blasphemy, nobody in the prison is ready to take care of him. Nor has he been shifted to a government hospital for treatment despite the fact that as a condemned prisoner his life should be protected under Article 9 of the Constitution,” the lawyer wrote, adding, “In the case my client has been left to die without proper treatment and is being discriminated against on account of class and religion and the kind of offence he is charged with.”

Malook cited the case of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz for whom a hospital unit was set up in the prison.

“Such discrimination is barred under Article 25 of the Constitution. As no discrimination on the basis of religion or status or creed is permissible, my client is entitled to the same treatment as provided to Sharif and his daughter,” he stated.

Requesting immediate medical care, Malook said that his client had been in a coma for three days last month. Even then, Malook says, he was not shifted to a hospital.

The EU Parliament resolution, adopted by a vast majority of its members, also urged the EU authorities to review GSP Plus (trade) status for Pakistan amid the increasing number of blasphemy cases and shrinking space for religious freedom. The resolution expressed concern at the continuous (ab)use of blasphemy laws in Pakistan which exacerbates existing religious divides. The EU stressed that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were incompatible with international human rights laws and increasingly used to target vulnerable minority groups, including members of Shia, Ahmadi, Hindu and Christian communities. It stressed that freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech and expression and minority rights are human rights and are guaranteed by Pakistan’ s constitution. It called on Islamabad to put in place effective procedural and institutional safeguards at the investigative, prosecutorial and judicial levels to prevent the abuse of these laws.

Islamabad, while reacting to the resolution, stated that the EU body lacks the contextual understanding of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

“Pakistan is disappointed. The discourse in the European Parliament reflects a lack of understanding in the context of blasphemy laws and associated religious sensitivities in Pakistan – and in the wider Muslim world,” said Zahid Hafeez Chaudhry, the spokesperson for the Foreign Office. The foreign ministry regretted “the unwarranted commentary by the lawmaking body of the regional bloc about Pakistan’s judicial system and domestic laws”.

The writer is a staff member. Email: vaqargillanigmail.com

Twitter: waqargillani

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