The Lahore High Court in Pakistan has acquitted Shafqat Emmanuel and his wife Shagufta Kausar, two Christians sentenced to death under Pakistan's blasphemy laws.
The couple, from the Punjab town of Gojra received the sentence for allegedly sending a local imam blasphemous text messages insulting the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.
On Thursday, Justice Syed Shehbaz Rizvi and Justice Anwar-ul-Haq of Lahore High Court acquitted Shafqat and Shagufta of the alleged crimes.
On 18 June 2013, Muhammad Hussain, a Muslim cleric at a mosque in Gojra received blasphemous text messages from a phone number allegedly registered to Shagufta. Hussain reportedly showed these text messages to his lawyer who claimed to later receive further blasphemous messages from Shagufta, written in English, as reported by International Christian Concern (ICC).
Shagufta and Shafqat were arrested and charged with blasphemy under Sections 295-B and 295-C of Pakistan's Penal Code on 21st July 2013. Shafqat claims that, in order to extract a false confession, Gojra City Police tortured him in front of his wife and children.
Throughout the investigation, little evidence was produced against the Christian couple. Police were unable to recover the SIM card or the phone allegedly used by Shagufta to send the blasphemous text messages. They were also written in English, a language which neither Shagufta nor Shafqat speak.
Sessions Court of Toba Tek Singh sentenced both Shagufta and Shafqat to death on 4 April 2014. The couple were jailed separately with Shafqat in Faisalabad District Jail and Shagufta in Multan Jail. In prison, Shafqat's health quickly deteriorated due to a lack of medical care for a spinal injury he sustained some years ago.
In Pakistan, false accusations of blasphemy are common and often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred, according to ICC.
ICC's Regional Manager, William Stark, said in a statement: "We here at International Christian Concern are happy to see Shafqat and Shagufta finally acquitted after nearly eight years in prison. It is great to see such a prolonged blasphemy case justly resolved. However, we remain deeply concerned for the safety of the Christian couple and their family. Extremists in Pakistan are known to target individuals accused of religious crimes, like blasphemy, even after they have been acquitted. The abuse of Pakistan's blasphemy laws must be curbed, and false allegations must be rooted out and punished. Too often these laws have been a tool in the hands of extremists seeking to stir up religiously motivated violence against minorities. Without reform, religious minorities will continue to face false blasphemy accusations and the violence that often accompanies these accusations."