ROME – After a Pakistani husband and wife who can’t read or write, but who were nonetheless accused of texting blasphemous messages, was acquitted this week, a long-time Asia watcher has called the ruling positive but said it doesn’t go far enough.
While the fact that the couple was released is a positive sign, “there is no norm which punishes those who made false accusations. This is a black hole of this law,” Paolo Affatato, head of the Asia desk for Fides News, told Crux.
“It’s true, today was a small step, today these people can go back to their lives, but who will give this couple back eight years behind bars, in separate prisons? Who will give back those eight years to their children?” he asked.
“Their children in eight years have had their family life completely interrupted. They couldn’t even go to school regularly because of the fear of repercussions, so it’s a very heavy situation for the victims, for what they’ve undergone with this injustice,” Affatato said, adding, “the people who caused so much suffering must also be punished in some way.”
On June 3 the Lahore High Court acquitted Christian couple Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar of blasphemy charges, citing a lack of evidence. The couple had spent eight years on death row after being accused of sending blasphemous text messages against the Prophet Mohammed in 2013.
The ordeal reportedly began with a dispute with colleagues. Shagufta’s co-workers allegedly stole her and her husband’s identity cards and used them to purchase cell phone numbers in the couple’s names, which they used to send the blasphemous text messages.
Both Shagufta and Shafqat, who have four children, claim to be illiterate. However, they were taken to court and sentenced to death in April 2014. Lawyers have spent the past seven years disputing the charges.
In April 2021, the European Parliament voiced concern over an “alarming” rise in blasphemy cases in Pakistan and urged the EU commission to review the trade benefits granted to Pakistan’s esports to Europe.
EU leaders urged Pakistan to repeal its anti-blasphemy laws, which are often used to settle the score in personal vendettas, rather than to prevent actual blasphemy.
In another high-profile case, in 2018 the Pakistani Supreme Court acquitted Christian woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy, after being falsely accused and spending nearly 10 years on death row.
While acquittals such as that of Asia Bibi and Shafqat and Shagufta are a sign that the justice system in Pakistan does work, minorities still face constant discrimination and even violence with little hope of prosecution for the guilty parties.
Just last month, a 32-year-old Christian man named Arif Masih was killed by a group of Muslims after defending his sister from the unwelcome advances of two young Muslim men. Days later, a 13-year-old Christian girl was raped after three young Muslim men in her neighborhood broke into her house while her parents were at work.
No arrests have been made in either case, despite the testimony of witnesses who described the assailants.
In Shagufta and Shafqat’s case, the couple is now free, but they will likely live in constant fear of reprisal from extremists who protested the acquittal and pushed for the death penalty. Experts and family lawyers have warned that the couple might not be safe in Pakistan, and that the family may have to move to another country to avoid further harassment, as was the case with Asia Bibi after her release in 2018.
According to Affatato, obtaining justice for the innocent is the minimum of what should be expected in cases of false accusations, but it’s not enough.
“You have to foresee the mechanism which discourages these false accusations,” he said, saying this can be done by “punishing them, and making it a criminal offense.”
Affatato said he believes there will be no arrests in Shagufta and Shafqat’s case, and that those who made the false allegations likely will go unpunished.
Noting that many other countries also have anti-blasphemy laws, including some western nations, Affatato said the main difference between them and Pakistan is that in most countries, “the punishment is light, it’s a criminal offense but it’s defamation, a light punishment, it could be a fine.”
“However, in Pakistan, it’s a very heavy penalty,” he said, noting that Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law was originally enforced when the country was still under British control, but it has since been modified and under the newer version, “it doesn’t punish insults against every religion, but just the Islamic religion.”
Also problematic about the revised law is that “there is no mechanism for those who are victims of false [charges of ] blasphemy,” he said.
“For those who are innocent, it is years of their life passed unjustly behind bars. They are families destroyed,” he said. “So, it’s true that the judicial system worked, thank goodness, so we tell the positive side, but work still needs to be done in prevention. We must prevent innocent people end up in prison only on the base of a blasphemy law that is being instrumentalized.”
In order for this to happen, a cultural change of mentality is needed, Affatato said, noting that beyond the Christian population, there are other sectors of civil society and even some groups of Muslims who criticize the misuse of the blasphemy law as a tool of revenge, but it’s not yet enough to get the law repealed.
“Society as a whole must recognize the distorted application of this law,” he said, saying the fringe extremist groups that support the blasphemy laws, even in unjust applications, must be “marginalized” so they lose their influence.
The political world must also “find the courage…to promote in parliament the change to this law, and to try it,” he said, alluding to the fact that many judges will stick to the false accusations out of fear, as many of those ruling on these cases face death threats.
These steps, Affatato said, can help “create a real change and prevent cases like this; this innocent couple who spent eight years in prison.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen