7 years in waiting

June 13, 2021

A two-member bench of Lahore High Court acquits a Christian couple facing blasphemy charges. The complainants have said they will challenge the awaited judgment

It has been more than a week since Lahore High Court acquitted Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, a Christian couple from the central Punjab accused of blasphemy some eight years ago. However, there are not free yet.

On June 3, a two-member bench admitted the appeal of the couple against their blasphemy conviction and death sentence awarded by the trial court in 2014 through a short order. The detailed judgment is awaited.

“The court accepted the appeal of the couple and overturned their death sentence awarded by the trial court under blasphemy charges. However, they cannot be freed from the jail without the written order from the court, which is pending,” Saiful Malook, the lawyer who argued the case of the couple, tells The News on Sunday (TNS).

Malook had earlier defended Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. A trial court had convicted the couple (Kausar and Emmanuel) and awarded them the death sentence for ending a blasphemous text message in 2014.

Emmanuel has a disability. This made waiting for their appeal to be heard an even more excruciating ordeal. Over the last two years, hearing of the appeal before the high court was adjourned several times. The case recently 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 also raised her voice for the couple saying she and Shagufta had been in a jail together for some months and that the latter must get justice.

A few weeks ago, the European Union Parliament had passed a Pakistan-specific resolution urging the country to allow more space for religious freedom and stop the abuse of blasphemy laws in the country. The EU community had highlighted the case of the Christian couple amid concerns for their security and the fear of judicial neglect.

The acquittal has disappointed radical religious groups in the country.

“Blasphemy cases in Pakistan are often premised on flimsy evidence in environments that make fair trials impossible,” says Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s South Asia deputy director, while reacting to the LHC acquittal.

“We are shocked by the court order to acquit this Christian couple of blasphemy charges. We still believe they committed blasphemy and deserve death sentence as per law. However, before their appeal was decided, the EU passed a resolution and urged Pakistan to review the blasphemy law, a statement by the groups of lawyers on the complainant’s side read.

“We are waiting for the [detailed] judgment of the high court. We will leave no stone unturned to get a stay against the judgment and challenge the verdict before the Supreme Court of Pakistan,” says Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, the advocate for the complainant side.

The group had earlier challenged the acquittal of Asia Bibi by the Supreme Court in 2019 and caused legal obstacles to her freedom from jail for several weeks.

“After Asia Bibi, those laying claims to Riasat-i-Madina (an Islamic state) have now managed the acquittal of another Christian couple to please their masters, ostensibly to seek relief from the Financial Action Task Force,” says a message circulating on social media.

Another social media message attacked Malook, the lawyer who argued the couple’s case. “Malook is frequently taking blasphemy cases and winning. We should do something about him,” said a social media post.

Talking to TNS, Malook said, “I only perform my professional duty. I love Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) more than anyone. I defend the accused as a constitutional and legal duty.”

The middle-aged Christian couple and professionals like Malook, rights groups warn, are facing serious challenges to their freedom and security.

“Blasphemy cases in Pakistan are often premised on flimsy evidence in environments that make fair trials impossible,” says Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s South Asia deputy director, while reacting to the LHC acquittal. The international rights group demanded that the authorities must now immediately provide Shafqat, Shagufta, their family and their lawyer Saiful Malook with adequate security. The rights group says Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are too broad, vague and coercive, enable abuse and violate Pakistan’s international legal obligations to respect and protect human rights, including freedom of religion or belief and of opinion and expression.

“They have been used to target religious minorities, pursue personal vendettas and carry out vigilante violence. On the basis of little or no credible evidence, the accused struggle to establish their innocence while angry and violent groups of people seek to intimidate the police, witnesses, prosecutors, lawyers and judges,” according to the rights group.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at: [email protected]    

Twitter: @waqargillani

7 years in waiting