7 years in a Pakistani prison—Christian couple freed from death sentence

June 10, 2021 by Lindy Lowry in Asia

Like Christian ex-prisoner Asia Bibi…

She is a Pakistani Christian who was accused of blasphemy.

She is a wife and mother.

She has languished in a Pakistani prison on death row for seven years … replacing Asia in the cell she once occupied.

And now Shaguftah Kausa has also been acquitted in a Pakistani high court—along with her physically disabled husband Shafqat Emmanuel.

Why they were on death row

Shaguftah and Shafqat

Although Shaguftah and Shafqat are illiterate, the Christian couple, surnamed Masih*, was convicted of sending blasphemous texts—in English—to Islamic clerics. Shaguftah and Shafqat’s accuser said he was praying on July 18, 2013 after breaking Ramadan fast when his cell phone vibrated. He said that he checked his cellphone and found blasphemous text messages insulting both the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an.

Gojra City Police Station House Officer Muhammad Nisar told World Watch Monitor in 2013 that Hussein’s call data revealed the messages were sent from Shaguftah’s cell phone number.

However, she told the police that the cell phone had been lost for a month, and she didn’t know who might have sent the alleged messages. Despite her explanation and illiteracy, the Gojra City Police detained the couple, along with their four children, and pressured them to name someone who could have sent the messages.

In what some said was an attempt to show that progress had been made in the case, the police formally arrested the couple in 2013 and sent them to jail the next day. Three years later, the couple appealed their sentence, but like Pakistani courts often do in blasphemy cases against Christians, officials continuously delayed their appeal.

“Shafqat has admitted to the police he sent the blasphemous messages and gave this statement to the judicial magistrate,” Nisar said.

Why they are now free

The couple’s lawyer at the time, Riaz Anjum, argued that extracting Shafqat’s confession was illegal. “Investigation should have been done by the senior superintendent before lodging the case,” Riaz said, “but here the police have extracted a confession from Shafqat which is illegal.”

When the then-EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Jan Figel, visited Pakistan to discuss Asia Bibi’s case in December 2017, he told Pakistani officials that the renewal of the country’s export privileges to Europe depended on Asia Bibi’s release. It was only after Asia’s acquittal in October 2018 (and final freedom in spring 2019), that Asia’s lawyer Saif ul Malook said his next case would be Shaguftah’s.

After Figel’s visit, an interfaith advisory council was established to look at the misuse of the blasphemy law, often used to “grab” disputed land or to settle personal grudges, business rivalries, etc.

The couple was acquitted, in large part, to the European Parliament’s adoption of a joint motion for a resolution in April 2021 calling for a review of the GSP+ trade status granted to Pakistan, and seeking more comprehensive approaches to address abuses of the blasphemy law. The motion specifically referred to this couple’s case.

Not the only phone text case of ‘blasphemy’ in Pakistan

In recent years, this apparent “planting” of fake texts or images on the mobile phones of sometimes-illiterate Pakistani Christians has been reported repeatedly:

Only days before Shaguftah and Shafqat were arrested in July 2013, a court sentenced a Christian man, Sajjad Masih*, from their same city, to life imprisonment (25 years in Pakistan) for blasphemy. Sajjad was also convicted of sending blasphemous text messages in a case first lodged in December 2011, again despite an absence of evidence.

His alleged text messages were sent from a SIM card registered in the name of his ex-fiancée, Roma. Neither the cell phone nor the SIM was recovered during the investigation. Nor was there any eyewitness or forensic evidence available.

Still, as is often the case with Christians charged with blasphemy, Sajjad’s conviction erupted in banners in city streets protesting that “life” was not sufficient for him, and that he should die. Below, a sign reads, “Only one punishment for the blasphemer; sever his head from the body … Life imprisonment not acceptable, not acceptable and not acceptable.”

A mob-fueled sign calls for Sajjad’s death: “Only one punishment for the blasphemer; sever his head from the body … Life imprisonment not acceptable, not acceptable and not acceptable.”

Three months later, the Lahore High Court threw out Sajjid’s case, ruling he could not be tried for the same offense twice.

In May 2006, Qamar David was accused of sending blasphemous text messages to various Islamic clerics in the city of Karachi. He was convicted in February 2010 and died in prison on March 15, 2011.

In January 2009, Hector Aleem and Basharat Khokhar were accused of sending text messages that “hurt Muslims’ religious sentiment.” They were acquitted of the charge on May 31, 2011.

Sixteen-year-old Ryan Stanton was charged with sending blasphemous text messages on October 10, 2012. He fled the country for refugee status in Sri Lanka.

Pastor Zafar Bhatti was accused of the same crime on November 11, 2012.

Several Muslims, such as Abdul Sattar and Irfan Rafique, have also been charged for sending text messages that violate the country’s misused and confusing blasphemy laws .

Pray with Shaguftah and Shafqat

In prison, Shaguftah and Shafqat have suffered immensely for following Jesus in a hardline Islamic society. Shafqat fractured his backbone in an accident in 2004, paralyzing his lower body. Since then, he has been restricted to a wheelchair and also uses a catheter. In prison, he was confined to bed; visitors reported seeing him covered in bedsores. Many believed he would die in prison.

At one time, Shaguftah was the breadwinner for the family’s four young children, until the couple’s arrest. Reportedly, she has found almost eight years in prison extremely hard and has suffered with depression.

Praise God that Shaguftah and Shafqat are finally free from prison walls. Please pray with us for this couple as they attempt to resume life and follow Christ in an Islamic society. Pray for their emotional and physical health. Pray for their four children and the rest of their family. Ask God to guide their days and place people in their lives who will support and remind them that they are not alone. That God is with them. And that He has plans for their future.

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