A Pakistani Christian couple who've been imprisoned for six years and sentenced to death on false blasphemy charges of sending a text message insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad continue to have their conviction appeal delayed.
Shagufta Kausar and her husband, Shafqat Emmanuel, who is partially paralyzed, were accused by a local imam of committing blasphemy by sending him an offensive text message in 2013.
Maulvi Mohammed Hussain, a leader at a mosque in the town of Gojra in Punjab province, claimed that Emmanuel used his wife's cellphone to send an anti-Islamic text message. He later claimed other messages followed.
Hussain said he was praying when he received the offensive text message from an unknown number.
The Muslim cleric reportedly showed the text message to two other imams before approaching his counsel for legal proceedings. He and his lawyer later claimed they both received subsequent blasphemous messages.
Police registered the blasphemy case following the imam's complaint, and the couple were arrested on July 21, 2013. They were charged with "insulting the Quran" and "insulting the prophet."
They were sentenced to separate prisons in 2014.
According to some reports, "[Kauser] is being held in the same prison cell Asia Bibi was held in before her release," Will Stark, regional manager for South Asia at International Christian Concern, told The Christian Post on Wednesday.
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"In regards to Shafqat, his medical condition has deteriorated significantly during his imprisonment," Stark added. "This is because the jail does not provide facilities for him, as someone partially paralyzed. Bedsores and lack of nutrition are definitely issues I have seen reported specifically in regards to Shafqat’s case."
According to the BBC, a final hearing before the Lahore High Court was scheduled for Wednesday. However, the hearing was delayed and a new hearing date will be announced.
Kausar's brother, Joseph, told the BBC that his sister and her husband are not only innocent, but he believes they aren't even literate enough to have written the text messages.
Joseph also said his brother-in-law had been tortured and forced to make a false confession.
"He told me the policeman hit [him] so hard that his leg was broken," Joseph was quoted as saying.
The text messages were also alleged to have been written in English. Aside from being illiterate, Shafqat and Shagufta are not familiar with the English language — written or spoken.
The couple's lawyer, Saif ul Malook, who also assisted in the appeal of Asia Bibi's blasphemy case, said the charges against Kausar and Emmanuel are "deeply flawed" and "weaker" than those levied against Bibi.
Although the phone was registered in Kausar's name, Malook told the BBC that "in their trial, they suggested a Christian neighbor they had argued with might have purchased a SIM card in Kausar's name and sent the messages in order to frame them."
In 2014, Nadeem Hassan, who's also representing the couple at the high court, said the offending messages were sent from a phone that had been lost. He further explained that a "bogus SIM card" had been presented as evidence against the couple, The Telegraph reported.
Hassan told ICC last year that the allegation is "based on religious hatred and is being used to settle personal grudges.”
Before her arrest, Kausar worked as a cleaner at a Christian school. Emmanuel has been paralyzed from the waist down since 2004, following an accident that fractured his spine. At the time of the accident, they were living with their four young children in a church compound.
The children continue to remain in hiding as their parents’ case continues, Stark said.
“Like many relatives of Christians accused of blasphemy, they live in fear that their parents’ blasphemy accusation may cause extremists to attack them,” he added.
Malook said the couple needs the same international support that Bibi received during the years she waited for her appeal to be heard. And if they're acquitted, he said they will also need to be granted asylum.
While no one has yet been executed on blasphemy charges, people who've been accused of the crime have been killed by retaliatory mob violence. Allegations of blasphemy are frequently lodged to settle personal disputes and to discriminate against religious minorities.
Christians make up just 1.6% of the country's population.
Pakistan, a 96% Muslim-majority country, ranks as the fifth-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA's 2020 World Watch List. In 2018, Pakistan was also named by the U.S. State Department as a "country of particular concern" for religious freedom violations.
The couple's appeal hearing has been rescheduled for June 22.
Follow Melissa Barnhart on Twitter: @MelBarnhart