Two months after being acquitted by a high court and surviving death threats, a Pakistani Catholic mother and her partially paralyzed husband, who were on death row for seven years on false blasphemy charges, have arrived in Europe.
Shagufta Masih and her husband, Shafqat Emmanuel, faced death threats after reports of their acquittal by the Lahore High Court broke in early June. In 2014, a session court had sentenced the couple to death by hanging.
“We are so relieved to finally be free. The last eight years have been incredibly hard, but we are so happy to be reunited with our children,” said Shafqat Emmanuel on behalf of the family, according to ADF International, a human rights group that supported the Christian couple.
“Although we will miss our country, we are happy to finally be somewhere safe,” added Emmanuel, who was the watchman of a school in the Gojra area of Toba Tek Singh district in Pakistan’s Punjab Province.
The Catholic couple was arrested in July 2013 under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws after a local imam accused them of committing blasphemy by sending him an offensive text message.
Maulvi Mohammed Hussain, a leader at a local mosque, claimed that Emmanuel used his wife's cellphone to send an anti-Islamic text message. He later claimed other messages followed. Hussain said he was praying when he received the offensive text message from an unknown number.
The Muslim cleric reportedly showed the text message to two other imams before approaching his counsel for legal proceedings. He and his lawyer later claimed they both received subsequent blasphemous messages.
Masih’s brother, Joseph, previously told the BBC that his brother-in-law had been tortured and forced to make a false confession.
The text messages were also alleged to have been written in English. Aside from being illiterate, Shafqat and Shagufta are not familiar with the English language — written or spoken.
ADF International’s Director of Advocacy for Asia, Tehmina Arora, said in a statement that their case “is not an isolated incident but testifies to the plight that many Christians and other religious minorities experience in Pakistan today.”
The couple’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, said, “These cases are very difficult to litigate, due to the concern for security. There is a very real threat to the life of the clients and the lawyers.”
Christians are often targeted by both Pakistan’s blasphemy laws meant to protect Islamic sensitivities and by hardliners who carry out violence and have killed scores of believers in the past several years.
The blasphemy law, embedded in Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, is frequently misused for personal revenge. It carries no provision to punish a false accuser or a false witness of blasphemy.
Islamist extremists also use the law to target religious minorities — Christians, Shias, Ahmadiyyas and Hindus.
“While the right to religious freedom is protected by the Pakistani constitution, many face severe persecution and denial of their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” Arora said.
“Hopefully, the blasphemy laws in Pakistan will soon be abolished, so others won’t suffer the same fate as Shagufta and I,” Emmanuel said.
The couple's country of asylum has not been disclosed due to security concerns.