Sentiments are high in the town of Gojra in Central Punjab for the past few days. The main streets of the town display banners paying tributes to the lawyer who contested the blasphemy case against a Christian couple and won death sentence for the accused husband and wife through the local court on April 4.
Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, both in their 40s, were accused of sending blasphemous text message to a Muslim Muhammad Hussain on July 18, 2013, during the month of Ramzan at around 10:30pm.
Muhammad Hussain, after consulting a local lawyer, lodged a report with the police on July 20. The complainant said that, along with him, many others received the blasphemous text from the same phone number at different times which, according to the police investigation, belonged to Shagufta, while her husband was charged with sending the text. The phone sim is said to have been issued in Shagufta’s name.
According to police reports, her husband admitted that he had sent the text with his wife’s consent so she was also held guilty.
“The couple is illiterate and has been doing low paid jobs at the bishop’s compound and is living there for the past many years,” says their lawyer Nadeem Hassan.
Shagufta, a helper in St John’s Cathedral Girls High School, was earning a meagre amount. Her husband was jobless after the lower half of his body got paralysed a few years back in an accident in the factory where he used to work. The couple has four children studying free of cost in the same school where their mother worked.
Additional Sessions Judge of district Toba Tek Singh announced the verdict in the jail where the case was being heard due to security concerns. Both Shagufta and Shafqat deny the charges levelled against them.
The accused deposed that about seven/eight months prior to the occurrence of this alleged crime, an altercation took place with Nazir Masih, a neighbour. Later the neighbour, in connivance with the complainant, threatened them of “dire consequences”. They said before the court that it is possible that someone got a sim issued in Shagufta’s name.
The case was lodged against the couple two days later after another local court announced life imprisonment on July 13, 2013 for another blasphemy accused Sajjad Masih, who was allegedly sending blasphemous text messages to local Muslims in the same town. He was also accused of blasphemy and violation of Telegraph Act (sending objectionable texts) on the complaint of a local Muslim Tariq Saleem. Scores of Muslims had come on roads, protesting against the judge for not giving death sentence to the accused and displayed banners highlighting their demand.
There have also been blasphemy cases against two Shia clerics in the same area in the past few years.
Gojra, a town in Central Punjab thirty miles away from Faisalabad, has a sizeable Christian population of around 100,000. The town has a prominent presence of hardline Muslim groups that are active against religious minorities.
The town once known as a nursery of hockey players is now known for religious extremism. In 2009, similar extremist elements attacked, vandalised and burned a whole colony of Christians, including churches, on accusations of blasphemy against Christian children in a nearby village. Eight of a Christian family, who could not escape, were burnt alive.
Muhammad Toqeer Ashraf Khan, the counsel of the complainant against the couple, charged no fee in this case considering it a religious obligation to render his service while prosecuting a ‘blasphemer’. “It was an honour for me to render my service for this cause. It does not call for any fee,” he tells TNS. “The complainant knew me already and approached me to pursue the case.”
He says the whole case of blasphemy was planned by the couple and part of a conspiracy to earn euros and dollars and fleeing away from Pakistan while using the blasphemy laws. He says the accused had a criminal mind and they did it deliberately. “I presented 24 documentary proofs in the court.” He says the accused were working on an agenda like other Christians in the town who had left Pakistan and taken asylum in different countries while the Christian international groups and non government organisations are supporting them financially and morally. “This issue has become a source of earning euros and dollars,” he repeats.
The police investigation report conducted by Superintendent Police Nasir Sial reads that the accused committed blasphemy on purpose — to go to another country with his family, that he already had 5 to 6 sims and this sim was mischievously bought in his wife’s name.
However, defence lawyer Hassan says the sim through which the message was sent, was bought with bogus receipt of the company. “The couple suspects rivals but implicating them in the blasphemy case to settle personal scores is not being considered.”
He says the case of the prosecution was a bunch of lies. “The witnesses were inconsistent, contradicting each other on different points. And the statement of accused was recorded under duress at 7pm after the court time. The sim receipt is manufactured as no franchise issued such receipt.”
“The accused are innocent and illiterate and could not even write the sms in English. No sane person can commit blasphemy knowing the current environment and consequences of this crime,” he maintains.
National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a minority rights group, in its report, has observed that the number of reported blasphemy cases is rising every year gradually. Among the cases during the past two years, at least 11 per cent of them took the plea of suffering from mental disorder; about eight per cent persons were charged on account of text messages that were reportedly received from their cell phone. It also appears that the Punjab is the epicentre, with 75 per cent of the cases lodged in the entire country being registered in the Punjab.
On March 27, another lower court in Lahore, sentenced to death Sawan Masih on blasphemy charge, an alleged crime committed during the course of a conversation he had with a Muslim friend in Lahore’s Joseph Colony neighbourhood in March 2013.
A few days ago, inside a courtroom in the Multan Central Prison during a blasphemy case hearing, the people opposing the accused Junaid Hafeez threatened the defence lawyers. Lawyers Rashid Rehman and Allah Dad had appeared before a judge on April 9 to defend him. During arguments for acquittal of the accused, three persons addressed the defence lawyer Rashid Rehman in the judge’s presence saying “you will not come to the court next time because you will not exist any more.” Reportedly, Rehman drew the judge’s attention to the threat but the judge is said to have remained silent, a statement of concern issued by Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reads. The Commission views that there is a systematic denial of legal representation to the accused in blasphemy cases.
Earlier, Aasia Bibi, a low-income Christian woman was accused of blasphemy in 2009. She was sentenced to death by the lower court after a year. Her appeal is being constantly dropped from the hearing list despite being due on schedule as per routine since February 2014. Salmaan Taseer, the then governor Punjab and a former federal minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti were killed in 2011 for raising voice in her support and calling to revisit the law to stop its misuses.