A Blasphemy Case Victory in Pakistan, Meanwhile a Major Setback in The Maldives

On the afternoon of 3 June 2021, Pakistani Christian couple Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel were released from an eight-year-long hellish struggle against blasphemy laws, false allegations, postponed court dates, and prolonged detention. Nearly a decade of insecurity and uncertainty has wreaked havoc on the couple’s life, but even with an acquittal, they are not yet out of the woods.

In 2013, a Muslim cleric visited the police with the story that he had allegedly received a blasphemous text message in English by a phone number registered in the couple’s name; just three days later, without investigation, Shagufta and Shafqat were arrested and charged with blasphemy. Less than a year later, in April 2014, the couple was sentenced to death by hanging for their alleged crimes.

Throughout the entirety of the case, numerous human rights activists and organizations, and even the couple’s lawyer Saiful Malook, have raised their concerns regarding the dubious allegations raised against Shagufta and Shafqat. First, the couple is illiterate in their own native language Urdu, let alone the foreign English language, and thus would be incapable of even writing such a blasphemous text. Second, the couple’s phone which the text messages allegedly were sent from had been lost by Shagufta and Shafqat a few months prior to the incident, and there existed no SIM card registered in their name. Finally, the couple had been in a previous minor dispute with their accuser about half a year prior to the allegations being raised against them, meaning the accuser may have falsified the story in order to settle scores with the couple.

During their time in separate prisons – Shagufta located in Multan Jail and Shafqat located in Faisalabad District Jail – Shafqat had suffered immensely. Already having been paralyzed from the waist down due to an accident in 2004, he developed bedsores and feared that hey may die in detention. The couple’s lawyer, Saiful Malook – who had previously worked on the case of Asia Bibi – filed an appeal in May 2019. Since then, and especially during 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the couple’s final verdict was repeatedly postponed, leaving them in a bona fide legal limbo.

Finally, the news has been confirmed by Saiful Malook himself. Justice Syed Shehbaz Rizvi and Justice Anwar-ul-Huq of the Lahore High Court officially acquitted the couple of their charges, rescinded the death penalty, and ordered for their release from detention. Malook rejoiced in the decision, stating that “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.” But their journey to freedom is far from over.

Numerous organizations, including Amnesty International and International Christian Concern, have highlighting the necessity to provide the couple and their lawyer with protection measures. In Pakistan, Islamist extremists have been known to become angered over blasphemy case acquittals and violently attack those accused. Just last year, in July 2020, a Pakistani man by the name of Tahir Ahmed Naseem was on trial for blasphemy after claiming he was a prophet, when a man entered the courtroom with smuggled and concealed weapons and shot Naseem dead with a pistol.

While Jubilee Campaign is welcoming the couple’s acquittal with overwhelming jubilation, we echo the calls of our partner organizations for heightened security measures to be taken for the safety and protection of Shagufta and Shafqat. We also highlight that the couple’s case is just one of the tens that have been leveled in recent years due to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are disproportionately misused to accuse, convict, and sentence to death and imprisonment the nation’s religious minorities who either committed no crimes or whose actions do not warrant such savage punishment.

And while the world is reeling over the great news of Shagufta and Shafqat’s acquittal and newfound freedom in Pakistan which can be viewed as a step in the right direction towards the global repeal of blasphemy laws, we cannot help but feel dismayed to see a major setback occur in the Republic of Maldives. On 1 June 2021, the government of the Maldives, just days after they had spearheaded a bill to take measures against incitement to violence, has introduced a bill criminalizing blasphemy after receiving pressure from Islamist extremists. How ironic is it that a government which vocally condemns incitement to violence should propose a blasphemy legislation when it is observable in numerous other nations that such laws embolden extremists to violently settle scores with religious minorities accused of blasphemy?

In response to the new legislation, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, stated the following on his Twitter account: “Evidence from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Mauritania, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc all show irrefutably that anti-blasphemy laws make society more intolerant & dangerous. Previous [Maldives] govt’s avoided this law because they were all more sensible than current gov’t!”

It seems that, in the global fight against laws criminalizing blasphemy, whenever we take one step forward, we end up being pushed back with even greater force. But we will continue to work for the repeal of such laws around the world which endanger the safety and violate the freedom of religious minorities.

Cover image: Dutch Parliamentarian Peter Van Dalen walks up to the podium of the European Parliament during a debate on the Joint Motion For a Resolution on Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan, and holds up a photograph of Shagufta Kausar (right) and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel (left).