How blasphemy laws are choking religious freedom and why the West should care

Shagufta Masih and her husband, Shafqat Emmanuel, with their children.(Photo: ADF International)

Last week, a Pakistani Christian couple, who had been on death row for seven years on false blasphemy charges, has safely arrived in Europe. The Lahore High Court had overturned their death sentence in early June. A session court had sentenced Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel to death by hanging in 2014.

The parents of four faced death threats after the news of their acquittal broke. ADF International, a human rights organisation supporting the couple. Here Sofia Hörder of ADF examines the issue: 

We've been here before. A sigh of relief was breathed around the world when the Lahore High Court overturned the death sentence of a Christian Pakistani couple condemned over blasphemy charges in early June. It was reminiscent of Asia Bibi's acquittal in a similar case only two years ago.

In 2013, Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel were falsely accused of sending blasphemous text messages to a cleric and a lawyer from a phone, allegedly registered in Shagufta's name.

The fact that the couple was illiterate, and could not have written the text messages, did not prevent a session court from sentencing them to death in 2014. Nor did Shagufta's explanation that her phone had gone missing a month before the incident.

"I saw the police beating my father. He is paralyzed from the waist down, so he didn't feel pain in his legs, but they also hit him in his face and beat him with gun butts on his back. They forced him to say that he had committed blasphemy," said their son Zehmat. The parents of four spent seven long years on death row - over nothing.

Their case is yet another striking example of how blasphemy laws violate religious freedom and freedom of speech. They are a dangerous catalyst of prejudice and violence against religious minorities under the pretext of protecting religious sensibilities. Every blasphemy law deviates from internationally recognized human rights principles. In particular, the human rights to freedom of expression and religion.

And they really do foster a deadly "you can't say that" culture. Since news of the couple's acquittal broke, they have gone from death row to receiving death threats by violent mobs. For now, they are safe. But they wouldn't be the first to face extrajudicial "justice" at the hands of extremists, who want to silence even acquitted "blasphemers". In 2016, Waqas Ahmed faced trial in Pakistan over an allegedly blasphemous Facebook post, before being acquitted by a court. On 2 July 2021, years after his acquittal, a Pakistani police officer murdered Ahmed with a cleaver.

The police officer believed he was bringing Ahmed to justice. After all, blasphemy is forbidden by law. Therein lies the problem. If the courts are seen as failing to deliver justice, extremists feel justified in taking matters into their own hands. And these trends don't only affect those accused of blasphemy in Pakistan. Back in 1989, the deadly ramification of blasphemy laws crossed borders when the leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, called for the death of author Salman Rushdie for his ill-received portrayal of Muhammad in his book "The Satanic Verses". Khomeini's incitement led to violent attacks on Rushdie's Norwegian publisher and Italian translator, as well as the murder of his Japanese translator. More recently, we recall the shooting of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in 2015.

But voicing international concern on this issue bears fruit. In April, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the Pakistani authorities to release Shafqat and Shagufta "immediately and unconditionally" and to overturn their death sentence. It also urged Pakistan to change the national Penal Code and to respect and uphold the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and expression throughout the country, effectively banishing the use of blasphemy laws. About a month later, Shagufta and Shafqat were acquitted. It is a step in the right direction, but the blasphemy laws remain.

The West must also avoid hindering progress in a positive direction. In May 2019, the United Nations Secretary-General introduced the U.N. Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech. In an article published this year, Meghan Fisher, a global religious freedom expert and legal consultant for ADF International, described it as "an influential campaign that poses serious risks to religious and political minorities because its definition of hate speech parallels elements common to blasphemy laws." 

Both "hate speech" prohibitions and blasphemy laws are vaguely worded, prone to arbitrary enforcement, and open to entirely subjective interpretation. Yet, U.N. human rights entities ushered in the former, while denouncing the latter. Both provide a pretext for authorities to prosecute those with minority viewpoints, be it political and ideological opponents, or religious groups. The U.N. Plan of Action thus provides an opportunity for those countries that wish, to cover up the continuation of their blasphemy laws under the guise of banning "hate speech".

Fisher points out that "indeed, examples of enforcement of hate speech laws in Indonesia, Russia, North Macedonia, and Denmark reveal that countries use these laws, just as they use blasphemy laws, to punish the expression of minority viewpoints." Considering that blasphemy is punishable by law in 71 of the world's 195 countries, according to a 2017 report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, it's worth taking a closer look to guard against unwanted consequences.

It is urgent that we act. Victims like Shagufta and Shafqat suffered years apart from their children in prison, despite the meager "evidence". And even though they were acquitted, they are not free to resume their lives as before. To avoid facing violent mobs, for most of those acquitted, the only option is to flee the country. That is if the courts dismiss one's blasphemy charges. Just this June, in the case of Zafar Bhatti, a Pakistani court upheld his life sentence in prison. He now faces 25 years for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages. His lawyer said he struggled to understand how the court could make such a decision, in spite of the prosecution's manipulated evidence and failure to establish his involvement.

In 2020, Pakistan logged a record number of 200 blasphemy cases. This means there are many more Shaguftas, Shafqats and Asia Bibis awaiting one of several unpleasant fates: acquittal but the search for asylum, a life sentence in prison, if not a death sentence, or death at the hands of a mob. We've been here before. Policymakers must ensure that blasphemy laws are repealed, and that hate speech laws don't lead us down a slippery path. We must not return to this point again and again.