Christian couple on death row for 8 years cleared of blasphemy charges

Shafqat Emmanuel Masih and Shagufta Kausar were accused of sending blasphemous texts to an Islamic cleric.Christians in Pakistan

A Pakistani court has acquitted a Christian couple of blasphemy after nearly eight years on death row.

Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar were accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in text messages in 2013. 

Mosque leader Maulvi Mohammed Hussain said Emmanuel used his wife's phone to send him a number of blasphemous statements, including a message insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

However, the texts were written in English - a language the couple are not even able to speak. 

Despite this, they were charged with "insulting the Quran" and "insulting the prophet".

The couple have always maintained their innocence, while Emmanuel claimed that he was tortured into giving a false confession. 

After years in prison, the Lahore High Court acquitted the couple on Thursday and ordered their release. 

Saif-ul-Malook, the couple's attorney, told International Christian Concern he was "just happy to get justice for this couple."

Accusations of blasphemy against Christians and other minorities are common in Pakistan. The charges are serious, carrying a death penalty but human rights advocates say the laws are often misused to make false accusations often for personal gain or to settle vendettas. 

Even though blasphemy cases normally result in acquittals, it can be years before they reach the courts, and even after being acquitted, the accused are often forced to go into hiding because of death threats. 

Another victim of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, Asia Bibi, had to seek asylum with her family in Canada after being released following nearly a decade on death row in terrible conditions. 

ICC Regional Manager William Stark said it was "great to see such a prolonged blasphemy case justly resolved" but he said the couple remain unsafe, as do other Christians who are at risk of false blasphemy accusations.  

He called for urgent reform of Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

"We remain deeply concerned for the safety of the Christian couple and their family," he said.

"Extremists in Pakistan are known to target individuals accused of religious crimes, like blasphemy, even after they have been acquitted.

"The abuse of Pakistan's blasphemy laws must be curbed, and false allegations must be rooted out and punished.

"Too often these laws have been a tool in the hands of extremists seeking to stir up religiously motivated violence against minorities.

"Without reform, religious minorities will continue to face false blasphemy accusations and the violence that often accompanies these accusations."