A court in Pakistan has indefinitely delayed an appeal hearing for a Christian couple who have been on death row since 2014 after being convicted of blasphemy.
Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, imprisoned since 2013, were sentenced to death under Pakistan’s notoriously draconian blasphemy laws for allegedly sending “blasphemous texts” that insulted the prophet Muhammad to a cleric.
The texts were sent via a sim card that was registered in Kausar’s name. However, the couple deny the allegations and believe that the sim was obtained by someone using a copy of her national identity card.
It has been six years since their appeal was launched, and the couple’s family and lawyers expressed frustration that the hearing had again been delayed indefinitely. Saiful Malook, the couple’s lawyer, accused the judge in Islamabad of avoiding hearing the case out of fear, as blasphemy cases are highly controversial and often dangerous for those involved.
In July last year a man on trial for blasphemy was shot dead in a courtroom in Peshawar, worsening the existing climate of fear among judges.
“We are not even given a date for next hearing. The judge keeps delaying the case due to fear, but it’s enough now. It should be heard. I fear for their lives,” said Malook.
“Judges in Pakistan will rarely hear cases of blasphemy until there is political or international pressure. There is no substantive proof against my clients, and they should have been released long ago.”
According to domestic and international human rights groups, blasphemy allegations in Pakistan have often been used to intimidate religious minorities and to settle personal scores.
Kausar and Emmanuel are being kept in two separate prisons in different districts of Punjab province. Both are in isolated cells, separated from other prisoners, as it is feared that if they mix with other prisoners, they may get killed.
Close family members of the couple also fear for their lives. Kausar’s brother Joseph, who does not want to share his last name and place of residence, left for Europe soon after her arrest when he found himself facing threats.
“My brother-in-law is almost physically dead, as he is paralysed and can’t move his lower body, and my sister is mentally dead as she has been living alone over six years and also feels people may kill her even in prison. She is very disturbed and her hair is falling out,” said Joseph.
Joseph said the allegations were false and that the couple did not insult the prophet.
“The cleric must have made false accusations,” said Joseph. “Sadly, the judges postponed the hearing. It is a failure of the justice system. Judges walk away, they don’t want to hear, while we, the family members, are left traumatised and don’t feel safe.”
The case is not an isolated one. Asad Jamal, a lawyer who represented Abdul Samad, who was convicted of blasphemy in 2013, said he had been waiting more than seven years for an appeal to be heard in the courts. Jamal described the system of justice around blasphemy cases as a “frustrating black hole”.
“Blasphemy cases are delayed because judges don’t want to hear them and lawyers don’t want to defend the accused,” he said.
Although Pakistan has not executed anyone charged under the blasphemy laws, at least 17 of those convicted of blasphemy in the country are on death row, with several others serving life sentences for similar offences.
Asia Bibi, a Christian farm labourer who was accused of blasphemy in a dispute with neighbours, endured a decade-long ordeal in the prisons of Pakistan. Her case resulted in uproar against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and drew international attention to its problematic legislation.
Malook said there were several similarities between the couple’s case and Bibi’s. “The same happened with Asia Bibi, whose case was delayed for a decade and it was heard only because there was some pressure from western governments.
“I believe Bibi would have been behind the bars to the date if there was no pressure. Just imagine the level of fear and justice when judges don’t want to hear such cases. This fear must end,” he said.
Originally sentenced to death in 2010, Bibi’s death sentence verdict was overturned and she received asylum in Canada, where she still receives death threats. In 2011 the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and the minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, were killed after they drew attention to Bibi’s case and campaigned for reform of the blasphemy laws.