An imprisoned Christian couple facing death sentences after being convicted of sending ‘blasphemous’ text messages have again had their appeal deferred.
Husband and wife — Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel — have been in prison since 2013 and were convicted and sentenced to death in April 2014.
The couple were due to have an appeal hearing at the Lahore High Court on Feb. 24, but it was postponed at the last moment. It has been six years since their appeal was first launched.
The couple’s appeal was earlier due to be heard in April 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic. At another hearing, on Feb. 15, the judges left the court as they were due to hear the appeal.
The couple’s lawyer, Saiful Malook, who also represented the high-profile blasphemy case of Catholic woman Asia Bibi, told The Guardian that judges in the country avoid hearing the case out of fear, as blasphemy cases are highly controversial and often dangerous for those involved.
“We are not even given a date for next hearing. The judge keeps delaying the case due to fear, but it’s enough now. It should be heard. I fear for their lives,” Malook told The Guardian.
“Judges in Pakistan will rarely hear cases of blasphemy until there is political or international pressure. There is no substantive proof against my clients, and they should have been released long ago,” he said.
The couple face execution for sending texts deemed ‘blasphemous’ to a mosque cleric insulting the Prophet Mohammad, from a phone containing a sim registered in Shagufta’s name. Both deny the allegations and believe that the sim was obtained by someone using a copy of her national identity card, said rights group Amnesty International in a statement.
Samira Hamidi, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for South Asia, said the couple’s mandatory death sentences are emblematic of the dangers faced by the country’s religious minorities while blasphemy laws remain in place.
““The government of Pakistan must urgently repeal its blasphemy laws that have been flagrantly abused and caused an immeasurable amount of harm,” Hamidi said.
The married couple are being held in separate prisons in Punjab province with both being kept apart from other prisoners.
Kausar’s brother Joseph, who now lives aboard for his own safety, told The Guardian the couple’s relatives are concerned about their well-being.
“My brother-in-law is almost physically dead, as he is paralyzed and can’t move his lower body, and my sister is mentally dead as she has been living alone over six years and also feels people may kill her even in prison,” Joseph said.
“She is very disturbed, and her hair is falling out,” he said.
In another case, Imran Ghafur Masih, a Christian who spent more than 10 years in prison for allegedly committing blasphemy, was acquitted by the High Court in Lahore on Dec. 15, last year.
Imran appealed the case, but it was postponed nearly 70 times over the course of the 10 years. Imran’s lawyer said the appeal passed through the offices of at least 10 justices.
Currently, 24 Christians are imprisoned on blasphemy charges in Pakistan. Most of those accused of blasphemy belong to the Ahmadi Muslim minority, which is viewed by many Muslims in Pakistan as heretical.
The Pakistani government has yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy.
Christians make up 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s total population of 216 million.