Pakistan overturns death sentences for Christian couple jailed on blasphemy charges

Pakistani Christians make up 1.6 per cent of the country’s population

<p>The Lahore High Court has acquitted a Christian couple — Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel — who were sentenced to death on blasphemy charges</p>

The Lahore High Court has acquitted a Christian couple — Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel — who were sentenced to death on blasphemy charges

The Lahore High Court has acquitted a Christian couple who had been sentenced to death on blasphemy charges, weeks after the European Parliament urged the country to “immediately and unconditionally” overturn their sentencing.

Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel had been on death row since 2014 for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Justice Shehbaz Ali Rizvi and Justice Tariq Saleem Sheikh dismissed the case against the couple on Thursday. The judges told the prosecution: “Your testimonies are defective. Can you describe how we can hang them?”

The Christian community in Pakistan rejoiced over the court order.

Saiful Malook, a lawyer who had defended Asia Bibi — a Pakistani Christian woman who spent years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy before this was finally overturned in the Supreme Court — defended this Christian couple too. He told UCA News: “I am very happy to be instrumental in saving more innocent lives and proving the failure of the case against the Christian couple.”

Under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, anyone accused of insulting either Islam or Prophet Muhammad can be sentenced to death.

After the European Parliament last month urged Pakistan to repeal its problematic blasphemy laws, provide Ms Kausar and Mr Emmanuel with urgent medical care and to overrule their death sentence, Pakistan’s foreign ministry had released a statement expressing disappointment at the resolution. The statement said that it “reflects a lack of understanding in the context of blasphemy laws and associated religious sensitivities in Pakistan — and in the wider Muslim world”.

The couple’s lawyer Mr Malook said he expects the couple to be released next week.

In a statement, Amnesty International said: “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.” It added that blasphemy cases are often “premised on flimsy evidence in environments that make fair trials impossible, underscoring the significance of this verdict”.

They also sought “adequate security” for the couple, their family and lawyer.

On social media, the couple’s acquittal was received with happy and prayer emojis. UCA News reported that a UK-based Pakistani Christian, Chaudhry Anjum Khokhar, posted on her Facebook: “Well done [those] who raised voices and provided legal help for them. Special thanks to the European Union.”

AFP reported that in 2009 in the Christian neighbourhood of Gojra in west Lahore — where the couple come from — a mob attacked the neighbourhood burning 77 houses and killing at least seven people after rumours that a Quran had been desecrated spread through the city.

Anjum James Paul, a Catholic academic and activist, congratulated the community on the Lahore High Court order. He said in a statement: “We welcome this free and fair decision. We demand eight years of suffering and imprisonment for those who accused the couple of blasphemy. The state should compensate the children of the affected family as well.”

Meanwhile, the couple’s lawyer Mr Malook said: “It’s unfortunate that innocent people are forced to rot in jails for years on false accusations of blasphemy. This practice needs to stop now. The charge is so serious that even judges are fearful of conducting hearings and giving decisions on merit.”

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