By Stefan J. Bos, Special Correspondent Worthy News
(Worthy News) - A Pakistani Christian couple was to face a court Thursday after spending six years in prison waiting for an appeal against their death sentence for "blasphemy", trial observers said.
Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel were convicted in 2014 of sending blasphemous text messages insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad. The messages were allegedly sent to a local imam from a phone number registered to Shagufta Kausar's name and another Muslim.
Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan, and mobs have killed dozens of people after being accused of the crime. Appeal judges will hear that the couple couldn't have sent "blasphemous" text messages because they can't read or write, Worthy News learned.
The married couple, who have four children, endured six years on death row despite saying they are illiterate and incapable of sending the messages, Christian supporters said.
Known lawyer, Saif-ul-Mulook, took up their case in May 2019. He also represented Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who successfully overturned her death sentence against blasphemy after eight years on death row.
But the lawyer warned reporters earlier that judges of the Lahore High Court hearing their case may be "fearful" of acquitting suspects. He said they fear of being targeted themselves by Islamic extremists. Court proceedings also slowed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Shagufta and Shafqat are being held in different prisons about 250 kilometers (155 miles) apart. They have not seen each other since 2014, according to Christians familiar with their situation.
Shafqat has been in the Faisalabad District Jail, while Shagufta is in Multan Jail, where Asia Bibi was imprisoned. During the last phase of Asia's detention, they were cell neighbors.
Shagufta and Shafqat are said to be suffering from depression. Their four children, who are being cared for by their paternal aunt, cannot visit them for safety reasons, explained Christians involved in the case.
Before they were prosecuted, the couple lived with their children in a church compound in Gojra in Punjab Province. Shagufta supported the family by working as a caretaker in a Christian school. Her husband was unable to work as he was paralyzed from the waist down, having fractured his spine in an accident in 2004, Christian said.
Their legal troubles began in June 2013, when Muslim cleric Muhammad Hussain claimed his prayers at a Gojra mosque were interrupted by a blasphemous text. He said the message came from a phone registered in Shagufta's name, and he showed it to other clerics. He and his lawyer later maintained they also received inflammatory messages written in English.
Shagufta and Shafqat were detained and charged with "insulting the Koran" deemed a holy book by Muslims and "insulting the Prophet." Police allegedly tortured Shafgat into confessing blasphemy. "To save my wife, I confessed," he reportedly told his lawyers.
The couple said a friend of complainant Muhammad Hussain conspired to steal Shagufta's National Identity Card. They allegedly used it to buy a SIM phone card in her name to send the texts implicating the couple.
Shagufta and Shafqat claimed that Muhammad Hussain's motive was revenge after a minor quarrel between their children and their Muslim neighbors six months previously.
However, Shagufta and Shafqat made clear they could not have written the texts because they "cannot write proper Urdu, let alone English."
Farrukh Saif, who leads the Farrukh Saif Foundation, advocating for the couple, said there was "no evidence" that the text messages came from a phone owned by the couple.
"In the first place, they had lost the phone some months before July 2013. And secondly, there was [origunally] no SIM card in their names," he stressed in a statement.
Devoted Christians, who comprise less than 3.6 percent of the country's roughly 234 million people, have complained of growing hatred in the Islamic nation.
Pakistan has come under mounting international pressure to overturn blasphemy laws, used for years to jail Christians and other perceived blasphemers of Islam.