Pakistan overturns Christian couple's blasphemy death sentences

  • Published
Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat EmmanuelImage source, Family handout
Image caption,
The couple were found guilty of blasphemy in 2014

A Pakistani court has overturned a death sentence handed down to a Christian couple for blasphemy, citing a lack of evidence.

Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel were convicted in 2014 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

But on Thursday, the couple's lawyer Saif ul Malook said the Lahore High Court had acquitted them.

A prosecution lawyer told the Reuters news agency that the latest ruling would be challenged.

Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan, and though no-one has ever been executed for it, dozens have been killed by mobs after being accused.

"I am very happy that we were able to get the release of this couple who are some of the most helpless people in our society," Mr Malook told the AFP news agency.

He said he expected the pair to be freed next week after the court orders are published.

Human rights groups have welcomed the ruling.

"Today's decision puts an end to the seven-year long ordeal of a couple who should not have been convicted nor faced a death sentence in the first place," Amnesty International's South Asia Deputy Director Dinushika Dissanayake said in a statement.

What were the couple accused of?

The married couple were convicted in 2014 of sending blasphemous text messages insulting the Prophet Muhammad to a local imam from a phone number registered in Ms Kausar's name.

But her brother told the BBC last year that the couple were innocent, and he doubted they were literate enough even to have written the abusive messages.

Ms Kausar worked as a caretaker in a Christian school, whilst her husband is partially paralysed.

Human rights groups say blasphemy allegations are frequently used to settle personal scores or target religious minorities

The couple's lawyer told the BBC last year that in their trial they suggested a Christian neighbour they had argued with might have purchased a SIM card in Shagufta Kausar's name and sent the messages in order to frame them.

In April, the European Parliament passed a motion condemning Pakistan for failing to protect religious minorities, focusing on the case of Ms Kausar and Mr Emmanuel.

Blasphemy convictions are often eventually overturned on appeal in Pakistan. Last year, Asia Bibi left the country after more than a decade in prison, having been acquitted by the Supreme Court. The verdict led to violent protests by hardline religious groups.

Media caption,

Asia Bibi's escape from Pakistan death row

Who are Pakistan's Christians?

  • They make up 1.6% of Pakistan's population, which is majority Muslim
  • Most are descendants of those who converted from Hinduism under the British Raj
  • Most converted to escape their low-caste status and many are among the poorest in Pakistan
  • The targeting of Christians is fuelled by strong anti-blasphemy laws and anger over the US-led war in Afghanistan