Pakistan has held a Christian couple, including a disabled husband, on death row for more than five years for allegedly sending a blasphemous text to a Muslim man despite being illiterate, the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) reported Sunday.
Wilson Chowdhry, the BPCA chairman, declared:
The arrest of Shagufta [Kousar] and Shafquat [Masih] in 2014 for blasphemy sparked a worrying trend of Christians accused for derogatory text messages and social media postings. … The simple fact that the couple could not possibly have written the blasphemous text messages due to being hyper-illiterate should result in their immediate release, however in Pakistan primary evidence can often be ignored and worse still manipulated by powerful and wealthy people intent on doing malice.
A Pakistani court sentenced the couple to death in April 2014 on charges of both “insulting the Koran” and “insulting the Prophet,” the Christian group noted.
They are currently awaiting an appeal against the conviction, arguing that they provided their confession under duress and the witnesses produced by the prosecution are related to the complainant.
“To save my wife, I confessed,” the husband reportedly told his previous lawyer.
The couple also argues that evidence exists that their sentencing judge, Mian Amir Habib, “was intimidated by hardline lawyers and religious leaders in the community,” BPCA noted.
Moreover, they say the accusations stem from a minor quarrel between their children.
Several human rights groups have noted that blasphemy accusations in Pakistan are subject to abuse, often used to settle personal disputes or vendettas.
BPCA highlighted the couple’s plight in the wake of the release of Christian mother Asia Bibi, on death row for nearly a decade also for allegedly insulting Islam.
At the end of October 2018, the highest court in Pakistan cleared Bibi of any wrongdoing, but it took months for Islamabad to release her. Pakistan held her in a secret government location until last Wednesday, allegedly over concerns she would disparage Islamabad once in Canada.
The same legal team that helped Bibi obtain her freedom is representing the couple, who are being kept in separate prisons nearly 150 miles apart.
According to Christianity Today, “Kausar is locked in the same prison cell in Multan Women Jail where Bibi has been incarcerated for many years.”
Depending on the perceived severity of the offense, Pakistan’s strict blasphemy law, primarily used to target Christians and other religious minorities, makes insulting Islam a crime punishable by life imprisonment or death.
Pakistan has yet to execute anyone on a blasphemy conviction, but Islamists often attempt to kill those accused of blasphemy and rarely face justice for their crimes.
On Sunday, BPCA noted:
The couple, believed to be in their late 30’s, hail from the city of Gojra from the Punjab province. They led a simple life and were living with their four young children in a church compound. Shagufta was employed as a cleaner and servant at the local church school.
On 18th July 2013, Muhammad Hussain, a Muslim, complained to his Mosque clerics about a blasphemous text that he had allegedly received on his phone whilst praying and whilst seeking legal advice, he claimed to have received more.
Both Shagufta and Shafqat are arguing against their conviction on the basis that there is no evidence that they purchased the SIM involved and adding that as they are both illiterate, could not have possible sent the messages which were written in English.
The wife argues that someone stole her National Identity Card (NIC) and used it to by the SIM card in her name, but the prosecution does not believe her.