Pakistani couple get death sentences for blasphemy

Christians in a church in Lahore (file photo) Human rights groups say Pakistan's blasphemy laws are often used to target minorities, including Christians

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A Pakistani Christian couple have been sentenced to death for blasphemy after allegedly sending a text message insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

The couple, named as Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, were found guilty of sending the text message to the imam of their local mosque.

Allegations of blasphemy against Islam are taken very seriously in Pakistan.

Several recent cases have prompted international concern about the application of blasphemy laws.

The imam brought a complaint against the couple last July.

The couple's lawyer told the BBC he would appeal against the sentences and said the trial had not been conducted fairly.

Pakistan has a de facto moratorium on the death penalty so it is unlikely the couple will be executed.

They come from the town of Gojra in Punjab, previously the scene of communal violence.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws

  • After partition in 1947 Pakistan inherited offences relating to religion which were first codified by India's British rulers in 1860
  • In the 1980s clauses were added to the laws by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq
  • One clause recommends life imprisonment for "wilful" desecration of the Koran, another says blasphemy is punishable by death or life imprisonment
  • Muslims constitute a majority of those booked under these laws, followed by the minority Ahmadi community
  • A majority support the idea that blasphemers should be punished, but there is little understanding of what religious scripture says as opposed to how the modern law is codified

In 2009 the rumoured desecration of a copy of the Koran led to a mob burning nearly 40 houses and a church in Gojra. At least eight members of Christian community died in the violence.

Minorities targeted

Since the 1990s, scores of Christians have been convicted for desecrating the Koran or blaspheming against the Prophet Mohammed.

While most of them have been sentenced to death by the lower courts, many sentences have been overturned due to lack of evidence.

Critics argue that Pakistan's blasphemy laws are frequently misused to settle personal scores and that members of minority groups are also unfairly targeted.

Muslims constitute a majority of those prosecuted, followed by the minority Ahmadi community.

In 2012 the arrest of a young Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, on blasphemy charges provoked international outrage. After being detained in a high security prison for several weeks she was eventually released and her family subsequently fled to Canada.

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