Death sentence for Pakistani Christian pair dropped after EU criticism

·2-min read
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, the acquittal of a Christian woman charged with that crime sparked protests by religious Islamist groups in 2018

A Pakistani court on Thursday ordered the release of a Christian married couple sentenced to death for blasphemy, lawyers said, weeks after the European Parliament blasted the country over the case.

Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar were jailed in 2014 after being convicted of sending a text message insulting the Prophet Mohammed -- despite both being illiterate.

The couple's lawyer, Saif ul Malook, and prosecutor Chaudhry Ghulam Mustafa, told AFP the pair had been acquitted on appeal.

"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," said Malook, who expects them to be freed next week after the court orders are published.

Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where anyone deemed to have insulted Islam can face the death penalty and the whiff of even unproven allegations can lead to mob lynchings and vigilante murders.

Rights campaigners say accusations are often made to settle personal disputes.

Kausar and Emmanuel were convicted following a complaint by a shopkeeper who claimed to have seen the text message.

In April, the European Parliament voted through a motion condemning Pakistan for failing to protect religious minorities, including Ahmadis, Shiites, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs.

It said several dozen people are currently in prison on blasphemy charges.

"The situation in Pakistan continued to deteriorate in 2020 as the government systematically enforced blasphemy laws and failed to protect religious minorities from abuses," the resolution said.

Kausar and Emmanuel's case was of particular concern, it added, and urged the authorities to "immediately and unconditionally" overturn the death sentence.

The parliament also called for a review of Pakistan's GSP+ status, which removes import duties from products coming into the EU from developing countries in return for agreements on issues such as human rights and labour rights.

The couple come from the town of Gojra, west of Lahore, which has a history of violence against the minority.

In 2009, a mob attacked a Christian neighbourhood there, burning 77 houses and killing at least seven people after rumours that a Koran had been desecrated.

Defence lawyer Malook also helped overturn the case against Asia Bibi, who drew international attention for being the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy.

The acquittal triggered violent protests by religious hardliners in 2018 and she later moved to Canada fearing for her life.

Rights group Amnesty International said the verdict "highlights the urgent need to repeal the law".

"The authorities must now immediately provide Shafqat, Shagufta, their family and their lawyer Saiful Malook with adequate security," it said in a statement.

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