(ADDS MORE DETAILS, BACKGROUND LAWS)
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)-- A Pakistani court sentenced an impoverished Christian couple to death for "blasphemy against Islam" on Friday, April 4, just days after another Christian was told he would be executed on similar charges, an advocacy official involved in the case told BosNewsLife.
Shafaqat Emmanuel, a crippled 38-year-old Christian man, and his wife Shagufta Kausar, 42, "were crying after being told they would be executed by hanging," said Farrukh H. Saif, executive director of the Pakistan-based World Vision In Progress (WVIP) rights group.
Friday's court procedure was held in the overcrowded prison of Toba Tek Singh city, where the couple was held following their arrest in nearby Gojra District on July 21 last year, he added.
Saif said WVIP and its international partner Rescue Christians, who provided lawyers to the couple, would appeal against the sentence as early as Monday, April 7.
The devoted Christians were accused by Muslims of sending blasphemous text messages with a mobile phone, charges they strongly deny. "Both have no real education. They can't send text messages in English," Saif explained.
However the complainants, identified as Muhmmad Hussain and Anwar Mansoor Goraya, who leads the lawyers organization Tehsil Bar Association, pressured judges to agree with the death sentence.
"They were reading verses from the Koran. They also said that if the court wouldn't sentence them to death, they would make sure they would be killed the same way as other opponents of the blasphemy legislation," Saif recalled. The prosecuting attorneys, "made clear they wanted to become Ghazi Ilamdin Shaheed and Mumtaz Qadri if the judge did not convict the accused," he explained.
"Ilamdin Shaheed is seen as a hero by Muslims for killing Mahasay Rajpal," a Hindu publisher, who in 1924 published a book considered blasphemous against Islam's prophet, Muhammad. Qadri was a police guard who in 2011 shot and killed Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, because he criticized blasphemy laws.
Trial observers said Qadri was sentenced to death but has appealed against the ruling. "I think because of that pressure the judge decided to sentence the Christian couple to death, perhaps hoping that ruling would be overturned on appeal. However it's not sure that will happen," Saif stressed.
The death sentence came despite evidence the couple's mobile phone was not used for the alleged blasphemous remarks about Islam, according to the defense team. "We discovered that the messages were send from another number." Saif said police also failed to recover the SIM [Subscriber Identity Module] card, needed to operate a mobile phone, which was allegedly registered in Shagufta’s name.
Despite the lack of evidence, 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 which recommends a maximum of three years for intentionally “causing annoyance,” WVIP explained.
The couple's lawyer, Nadeem Hassan, added that police mistreated Shafqat Emmanuel, who is confined to a wheelchair due to a spinal injury, and forced him to confess he had sent the blasphemous messages, to calm down an angry mob led by Muslim clerics.
Yet, Saif said, he was not surprised the couple was detained. "These poor people are persecuted because of their strong faith in Jesus Christ," he told BosNewsLife in an interview.
"Shagufta Kausar worked as a maid in the local church and the church school." Shafqat Emmanuel was staying at home since becoming crippled several years ago, but he took care for their children, Saif stressed.
"We are now supporting their four young children, three sons and one daughter. The oldest is 12, the youngest six. We are very concerned about them."
Friday's ruling came after a Christian young man, Sawan Masih, launched an appeal against the death sentence he was given under Pakistan's blasphemy law on March 27.
"Masih was sentenced by additional district and sessions judge Lahore Chaudhry Ghulam Mustafa for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad during a conversation with a Muslim friend in Lahore's [Christian neighborhood] Joseph Colony last March," said the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) in a statement to BosNewsLife.
CLAAS lawyers will represent Masih, whose alleged blasphemous remarks sparked riots in the Christian neighborhood of Lahore city.
At least 178 Christian homes were burnt down in Joseph Colony by a Muslim mob following the allegations, said
Nasir Saeed, a CLAAS director. "He has always denied the charges against him, stating that they have been made up in a bid to grab his land."
An appeal of the 45-year-old Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, against her death sentence will be heard April 14, added Sardar Mushtaq Gill, a prominent human rights activist.
Saif told BosNewsLife more devoted Christians will face executions soon amid what he views as a massive crackdown on Christianity in the Islamic nation. "Among others expected to receive the death penalty are Asif Pervaiz, a jailed Christian man who was injured and nearly killed after being attacked twice by Muslim inmates, and Pastor Adnan," he said. "Both men have been detained since October 2013.
WVIP and Rescue Christians have begun relocating Christians facing death from Pakistan, including the driver of Pakistan's late Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, who was shot and killed for criticizing the blasphemy legislation.
"The driver was a key witness in the trial against suspects. While on his way to court he received a threatening phone call from the Taliban [terror group] saying: 'You walk on your feet to court, but you will be brought out on shoulders'," an indication that he would be killed, Saif recalled.
"Gulsher Masih called me and we were able to bring him out of Pakistan last week, along with another Christian, George Naz, who was a victim of false blasphemy accusations," he said. BosNewsLife was asked, and agreed, not to immediately reveal the name of the country, amid security concerns.
Other Pakistani Christians who have been relocated recently included Pakistani teenager Ryan Stanton and Martha Bibi who both faced death threats over alleged blasphemy, Saif said.
Pakistan's government has come under international pressure to overturn blasphemy legislation, but officials have been reluctant amid growing pressure from Muslim groups. "Muslim judges are biased towards Christians. The minority is facing unprecedented pressure," Saif added.