The Lahore High Court (LHC) on Thursday acquitted a Christian couple who were sentenced to death more than seven years ago for committing blasphemy.
Shafqat Emmanuel, the watchman of a school in Toba Tek Singh district's Gojra, and his wife Shagufta Masih were arrested in July 2013 under Section 295-C [use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him)] of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) on the charge of sending blasphemous text messages to the complainants, shopkeeper Malik Mohammad Hussain and Gojra tehsil bar’s former president Anwar Mansoor Goraya.
In April 2014, the couple were sentenced to death for blasphemy and fined Rs100,000 each by an additional district and sessions judge in Toba Tek Singh.
The couple, who denied the charge against them, had subsequently filed an appeal against their conviction in the LHC. They were represented in the legal proceedings by Advocate Saiful Mulook, while the complainants were represented by Advocate Chaudhry Ghulam Mustafa.
After hearing arguments from both sides, a two-member bench of the LHC overturned the couple's conviction, paving the way for their release. The court's detailed judgement is currently awaited.
In April this year, the European Parliament had adopted a resolution calling for a review of the GSP+ status granted to Pakistan in view of an "alarming" increase in the use of blasphemy accusations in the country, among other concerns.
The resolution expressed particular concern regarding the case of Shafqat and Shagufta, saying "The evidence on which the couple were convicted can be considered deeply flawed."
It had noted that the couple had allegedly been in an argument with the accuser not long before the accusations were made.
The resolution, which was passed overwhelmingly — 662 to 3 — with 26 not voting, had also stated that the couple's appeal had been "postponed multiple times".
Human rights groups say blasphemy laws are often misused to persecute minorities or even against Muslims to settle personal rivalries. Such accusations can end up in lynchings or street vigilantism.
Around 80 people are known to be imprisoned in the country on such charges — half of whom face life in prison or the death penalty — according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.