A Pakistani court has acquitted a Christian couple who have spent seven years on death row for alleged blasphemy.
The Lahore High Court acquitted Shafqat Emmanuel and his wife Shagufta Masih after a hearing in the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday, the couple’s lawyer Saif ul Malook said, in a case that rights groups have long singled out for fair trial issues.
“They have been acquitted on all charges […] and the capital sentence is set aside,” said Malook.
“The appeal was allowed after hearing the arguments [from both sides],” Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, the lawyer for the complainant in the case. “The grounds and reasons for the decision have not yet been given.”
Emmanuel and Masih were convicted and sentenced to death in April 2014 for having allegedly sent “blasphemous” text messages that were insulting to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and its holy book, the Quran, to a local Muslim leader in their native Gojra, a town located 165km west of provincial capital Lahore.
The couple denied the charges, with their lawyer arguing they were illiterate and unable to compose the text messages they were accused of sending, court documents say.
Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where certain forms of the “crime” carry a mandatory death sentence.
Violence around blasphemy allegations has become increasingly common, with mob violence or targeted attacks against those accused of the “crime” or people who defend them.
Since 1990, at least 78 people have been killed in such attacks. Those killed include people accused of blasphemy, their lawyers, family members, rights activists and religious leaders.
In 2009, Gojra was the site of some of Pakistan’s worst communal violence, with at least eight Christians killed after a riot by Muslim residents that was trigged by a blasphemy allegation.
THREAT TO LIFE
On Friday, Malook said the couple were expected to be released from prison within a week, but that they would need security.
“If they are released and are in public, they will be killed,” he said.
Rights groups have echoed that concern, with UK-based Amnesty International demanding that “adequate security” be provided to the couple, their family and Malook.
“‘Blasphemy’ cases are often premised on flimsy evidence in environments that make fair trials impossible, underscoring the significance of this verdict,” said Amnesty’s South Asia Deputy Director Dinushika Dissanayake.
“This case is sadly emblematic of the harassment, intimidation and attacks that those accused of ‘blasphemy’ routinely face and highlights the urgent need to repeal the law.”