Shagufta Kousar and Shafqat Masih have been sentenced to death in Pakistan for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages to a Muslim man. The illiterate pair from Gojra, Punjab province were detained and charged with “insulting the Qur’an” and “insulting the Prophet.” They claimed that they were forced into making confessions under duress and have protested their innocence.
Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association said to The Guardian that it was a “worrying trend of Christians accused for derogatory text messages and social media postings.”
He added: “The simple fact that the couple could not possibly have written the blasphemous text messages due to being hyper-illiterate should result in their immediate release. However in Pakistan primary evidence can often be ignored and worse still manipulated by powerful and wealthy people intent on doing malice.”
Yet, their story is not the first of its kind. On 4 Jan 2011, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Oadri. When further pressed about the crime, Oadri’s response was simply, “This is the punishment for a blasphemer.”
Taseer had been a notable critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws; he spoke fervently about the case of Asia Bibi – a Christian who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy. Bibi was an illiterate farmhand who had been convicted of desecrating the Prophet Mohammed. A row had escalated because her Muslim neighbours, who were incensed that Bibi had drunk water from the same glass as them–because of her faith. After spending eight years on death row, Bibi was eventually freed and moved to Canada earlier this month for her own safety.
Taseer’s assassination was not the only one of that nature to occur. Just a month after his death, another minister who petitioned for the law to be amended was killed in Islamabad. Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, was shot eight times when two gunmen riddled his car with bullets before leaving leaflets at the scene. The pamphlets called Bhatti a “Christian infidel” and were signed as “Taliban al-Qaida Punjab”.
Under British rule in 1860, a law was enacted which made it a crime to disrupt a religious congregation, trespass on burial grounds, insult religious doctrines or willfully destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. It was a crime that was punishable with one year to 10 years in jail–with or without a fine.
In 1947, Pakistan came to existence following the partitioning of India by the British. General Ziaul Haq, the country’s President from 1978 until his death in 1988, changed some of the legislation, which heavily fringed on his regime’s “Islamisation” ideals. During the 1980s, the penal code was re-written for the death penalty to be used as a form of punishment for blasphemy specific to Islam. Furthermore, he re-defined what constituted as blasphemy.
A large majority of Pakistanis support the law with many believing the ruling comes directly from the Koran, oblivious that the act was manmade.
A report by Amnesty International, “As Good As Dead: The impact of blasphemy laws in Pakistan” stated: “The blasphemy laws are incompatible with international human rights law and should be repealed. As an interim measure, leading up to repeal, a number of key safeguards must be introduced. For example, a wide range of people can register complaints with the police, including those who are not direct witnesses to the alleged blasphemy. In some cases, the delays between when the alleged incident occurred and when the case is registered with the police by the complainant raises questions about the credibility of the allegations, especially when coupled with weak evidence against the accused…
“…Many people accused of blasphemy are forced to undergo a gruelling trial due to several factors: vaguely formulated laws, the low standard of evidence required for conviction, and the manner in which allegations are often uncritically accepted by the police, the prosecuting authorities, and even trial court judges, who may themselves also face threats and intimidation.”
Qibla Ayaz, who heads Pakistan’s top advisory body on religious affairs, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), told BBC in February that no government was ready to make changes to the blasphemy law due to fears of a backlash.