LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – A Christian couple in Punjab Province incapable of writing proper Urdu was sentenced to death today for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages, bringing the number of Christians on death row in Pakistan to four.
In a country reeling from increasing religious intolerance, the death knell for Shafqat Emmanuel Masih and Shagufta Kausar sounded eight days after a court in Lahore sentenced another Christian, Sawan Masih, to death for allegedly insulting Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, during a drunken conversation with a Muslim friend. that made Masih the second Christian in Pakistan now on death row after a judge sentenced Christian mother Asia Bibi to death for alleged blasphemy in November 2010.
A court in Toba Tek Singh heard the case against Shafqat Masih, 43, and his wife, a cleaner at a local missionary school and mother to four young children. They were accused of sending blasphemous text messages on June 18, 2013, to complainants Muhammad Hussain and Gojra Tehsil Bar Association President Anwar Mansoor Goraya from a number allegedly registered in Shagufta’s name.
The Gojra City Police in Punjab charged them with blasphemy under Sections 295-B (insulting the Koran, punishable by life imprisonment), 295-C (insulting Muhammad, punishable by death) and 25-D of The Telegraph Act of 1985. Section 25-D recommends a maximum of three years for intentionally “causing annoyance.”
The couple’s lawyer, Nadeem Hassan, said the judge had succumbed to Islamists’ pressure and handed down the death sentence even though there was no concrete evidence against the couple.
“Toba Tek Singh Additional Sessions Judge Mian Amir Habib was clearly intimidated by advocate Touqir Ashraf and some other Islamist lawyers from Lahore who were representing the complainants,” Hassan said. “These men kept pressuring the judge during the entire trial, which was conducted in prison due to fears for the couple’s security. Even on Friday [March 28], the complainants’ lawyers kept proclaiming Koranic references calling for death to blasphemers.”
Prosecuting attorneys told the court they were “determined to become Ghazi Ilamdin Shaheed and Mumtaz Qadri if the judge did not convict the accused,” Hassan told Morning Star News in Lahore. Ilamdin Shaheed is revered as a hero by Muslims for killing a Hindu publisher, Mahasay Rajpal, who in 1924 published a book considered blasphemous against Muhammad. Qadri was a police guard who gunned down a top government official, Salman Taseer, because of his outspoken views on the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. Qadri has been sentenced to death but has challenged his conviction.
“The police failed to recover the SIM [Subscriber Identity Module] allegedly registered in Shagufta’s name from the couple’s possession,” Hassan said. “The police just produced a receipt of a cellular company on which Shagufta’s national identity card number was written against the number.”
He added that police had earlier claimed that Hussain’s call data had revealed that the messages had been sent from Shagufta’s cell phone number. Hassan said that during the trial, he kept demanding that the prosecution present the call data record in court, which they failed to do.
“During preliminary investigations, Shagufta had told the police that her cell phone had been lost for a month, and that she did not know who might have sent the alleged messages,” he said. “Nevertheless, the Gojra City Police detained the couple, along with their four minor children, and pressured them to name someone who could have sent the messages.”
Hassan said that in order to appease mobs led by Islamist clerics, police forced Masih, who is confined to a wheelchair due to a spinal injury, to confess that he had sent the blasphemous messages.
“The police tortured Shafqat to confess before a judicial magistrate, but the crippled man retracted his statement when we requested the session judge to record his statement again,” he said.
Masih’s backbone was fractured in an accident in 2004. Since then he has been paralyzed in the lower body. Since his accident, Shagufta has been the only breadwinner for the family’s four children, Ambrose, 13, Danish, 10, Sarah, 7, and Amir, 5.
Hassan said he would challenge the verdict in High Court once he receives a copy of the detailed verdict.
Farrukh Harrison of the Christian advocacy group World Vision in Progress told Morning Star News that his group had been protesting against the “court’s biased attitude” from the trial’s outset.
“Judge Habib simply refused to accept our submissions regarding insufficient evidence presented by the prosecution,” Harrison said. “We also moved the High Court in this regard, but our petition was referred back with a direction to the trial court to expedite the matter.”
Harrison lamented the fact that the judge had given death sentence to both the husband and wife even though they had forced a confession from her husband.
“Why was Shagufta given death sentence when the police claims that her husband had committed the act?” he said. “Isn’t this travesty of justice that a poor couple has been convicted for a motiveless crime?”
Harrison said the court also should have noted that in most cases of blasphemy, the accused are from poor background.
“The question is what could have been this couple’s motive for committing this crime in the first place,” he said. “They are uneducated, poor people whose entire life is limited to their hometown only.”
The activist further said that their lawyer had told the court that the couple couldn’t possibly have written the alleged texts written in Roman Urdu when they couldn’t even read or write Urdu properly.
“It’s only a matter of time when two other Christians accused of blasphemy [Pastor Adnan Masih, aka Adnan Prince, and Asif Pervaiz] would also be given the death sentence,” he said. “It’s a pity that all these people will have to suffer for years in prison until the High Court judges their cases on merit.”
At least three other cases have been registered previously against Christians based on blasphemous text messages.
In May 2006, Qamar David was accused of sending blasphemous text messages to various Islamic clerics in Karachi. He was convicted in February 2010 and died in prison on March 15, 2011.
In January 2009, Hector Aleem and Basharat Khokhar were accused of sending text messages that hurt Muslims’ religious sentiment. They were acquitted of the charge on May 31, 2011.
Ryan Stanton, then 16, was charged with sending blasphemous text messages in Karachi on Oct. 10, 2012. He has fled the country after the family’s home was ransacked by a violent Muslim mob.
At least two Muslims, Abdul Sattar and Irfan Rafique, have also been charged with sending text messages.
Rights groups have said that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often misused to persecute minorities and to settle personal scores. In a recent report, Amnesty International said the vague formulation of the blasphemy laws, along with inadequate investigation by authorities and intimidation by mobs and some religious groups, has promoted vigilantism across Pakistan, especially in Punjab Province.
Although Pakistani courts have ordered death sentences on a variety of charges, thousands of inmates have been parked on death row since a government moratorium on executions began in 2008. But since the election last year of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has publicly supported capital punishment, analysts have speculated that the government might move to hold executions.
Sawan Masih was sentenced by Lahore Additional District and Sessions Judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza on March 27. The street sweeper was also fined 200,000 rupees (US$2,027). Accusations against Masih sparked the destruction of 180 Christian-owned homes and shops in Lahore’s Joseph Colony in March 2013; an anti-terrorism court freed the 133 Muslim suspects in spite of strong video evidence against them.
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