ISLAMABAD -- A Pakistani appeals court on Thursday acquitted a Christian couple sentenced to death on blasphemy charges for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad, their defense lawyer said.
The appeal of their 2014 death penalty by Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel from the country’s eastern Punjab province had not been heard until now for unexplained reasons, said the lawyer, Saiful Malook. The two were arrested in 2013 and tried on suspicion of sending a blasphemous text message to a local cleric in Punjab.
Then on Thursday, the Lahore High Court overturned the death sentence and ordered the couple released. They had been on death row in two separate prisons, and would be freed after all the paperwork was done, said the lawyer.
“I fought a legal battle for this innocent couple for years," Malook told The Associated Press. “I am happy that justice has been done to this poor wife and her husband.”
Under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, anyone accused of insulting Islam or other religious figures can be sentenced to death if found guilty. While Pakistan has yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy, just the accusation of blasphemy can incite riots and lynching.
Thursday's development comes weeks after the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for a review of a preferential trade status given to Islamabad in 2017 and demanding the release of the couple. The EU Parliament in April had also asked Pakistan to immediately repeal its blasphemy laws.
It is unlikely, however, that Pakistan would even consider repealing the laws because as blasphemy remains an extremely sensitive issue in this predominantly Muslim nation. Radical Islamists parties have held violent rallies in recent years to stop the government from making any changes in the blasphemy laws.
Amnesty International welcomed Thursday's acquittal of the Christian couple. The watchdog's deputy director for South Asia, Dinushika Dissanayake, asked authorities to provide protection to the couple and their lawyer. She also urged Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy laws.
Domestic and international rights groups say blasphemy allegations have often been used to intimidate religious minorities in Pakistan and settle personal scores.
A Punjab governor was killed by his own guard in 2011 after he defended a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy. She was acquitted after spending eight years on death row and left Pakistan for Canada to join her family after receiving threats.
Associated Press writer Asim Tanveer in Multan, Pakistan, contributed to this story.