8th May 2021

Staff report

LAHORE

The European Parliament on April 28, 2021, adopted a resolution for a review of Pakistan’s preferential trade status with the European Union (EU) and an end to its eligibility for the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) Plus.

The resolution, which had been passed with an overwhelming majority of 662 to 3, linked the call for review to Pakistan’s abuse of blasphemy laws especially with regards to the case of Shafqat Emmanuel and his wife Shagufta Kausar, who have been on death row since 2014 after being convicted of blasphemy by a Toba Tek Singh Additional District and Sessions Court.

“It’s a bogus case!” exclaimed Supreme Court Advocate Saif ul-Malook, the couple’s counsel.

This is not the first time Malook has opted to represent members of the minority Christian community falsely accused of blasphemy.

He had previously served as the counsel for Aasia Bibi, a Christian who had spent eight years of her life on death row after she was convicted of blasphemy in 2010. She was ultimately acquitted of all charges by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in October of 2018, however a wave of violent protests and riots by religious extremists following the apex court’s verdict prompted her to flee to Canada in 2019.

Malook too was forced to seek asylum in the Netherlands in November of 2018 after being inundated with death threats. The Minorities Minister at the time, Shahbaz Bhatti and former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer were killed for advocating on her behalf and opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

He eventually returned to Pakistan in late January of 2019 and later took up Shafqat and Shagufta’s case.

Voicepk.net spoke to the senior advocate to discuss the progress in the couple’s case. Malook spoke of ill-treatment and discrimination his clients have had to face by the justice system of Pakistan.

THE INCIDENT AS RECOUNTED BY SAIF UL-MALOOK

On July 20, 2013, a man by the name of Mohammad Hussain submitted a complaint at the Gojra police station in Toba Tek Singh district, Punjab. He alleged that he was offering taraweeh prayers when he received a text message containing blasphemous statements. The FIR was lodged against unknown persons.

However, the following day, Hussain divulged to the police that he personally visited a mobile franchise to figure out the identity of the owner of the SIM card under which the phone number, which sent out the ‘objectionable’ message, was registered. Hussain claimed that the franchise owner informed him that he had sold the SIM card to one Shafqat Emmanuel and summarily nominated the wheelchair-bound Christian man in the FIR lodged on July 21, 2013.

That same evening around 6:30 PM, at iftar, the Superintendent of Police (SP) and a contingent of officers arrested Shafqat. Within 15 minutes, he recorded a confessional statement before a judicial magistrate (according to the High Court Rules order, confessional statements should be heard during court hours which in the month of Ramzan are between 8 AM to 1 PM).

During proceedings, the police produced a witness from the mobile phone franchise who, prior to his appearance in court, stated that he had sold the SIM card to Shafqat who alone arrived at his shop. However, upon appearing before the magistrate, the witness changed his statement and alleged Shafqat and his wife Shagufta Kausar purchased the SIM card from him — the number was registered under Shagufta’s name while Shafqat footed the bill.

The plaintiff Mohammad Hussain also altered his statement, claiming that when he visited the mobile phone franchise he was told that Shagufta bought the SIM card and that Shafqat waited for her outside the shop.

WHY THE DELAY IN HEARING THEIR APPEAL AGAINST THE CONVICTION?

“Our judges are afraid – no one wants to hear this case,” Malook explained. “Shafqat and Shagufta’s appeal against their convictions has been dragging for the past two to three years. The case as a whole has been going on for seven years.”

At one point, the case even fell into the lap of Lahore High Court Chief Justice Mohammad Qasim Khan, whom Malook says is a deeply religious man. The case was then transferred to another senior judge from Rawalpindi who heard the case for roughly 45 minutes before observing that there was no precedent for any case.

“The judge asked the plaintiff’s counsel where in the file was the alleged receipt of the SIM card’s purchase. He had no clue about the receipt, at which point I chimed in and informed the judge that there was never any such receipt,” he related, adding that the judge issued directives to the Toba Tek Singh sessions court judge to inquire into the receipt issue and produce a summary within four weeks. “He washed his hands of their case.”

The appeal was filed again and was this time heard by Justice Shahbaz Ali Rizvi of the Lahore High Court, who had famously dismissed Aasia Bibi’s appeal.

“He wondered out loud if this case had been heard before by another judge to which I replied that the appeal was only partly heard, that it was never heard in its entirety,” Malook recalled. He then went on to explain that when a Justice applies the term ‘part heard’ to a case hearing, then only that judge may hear that case and no other. “Justice Rizvi decided that the case should then be heard by the previous judge. He then composed an order that since another bench had heard the case, the file should therefore be placed before the Chief Justice to transfer it to that bench.”

The plea was eventually tossed back to Justice Shahbaz Ali Rizvi, who then himself transferred to the Rawalpindi bench a week before the hearing date. The appeal subsequently went to the bench of Justice Tariq Saleem Sheikh and Justice Muhammad Anwar-ul-Haq.

“The bench went into the case with full gusto. Upon being informed that the counsel was absent today, the judges claimed that the next hearing would be the last in this case. The next date of hearing rolled in and the case was transferred back to Justice Shahbaz Ali Rizvi,” Malook recounted the sheer absurdity of it all.

SEVEN-YEARS-LONG SUFFERING

Shafqat and Shagufta’s four children have been deprived of their parents’ protection and presence for the past eight years, and live between relatives, unable to enroll in a school or learn anything that would help them later to fend for themselves in adulthood. Their lives have been effectively destroyed, says Malook.

At the same time while in prison, the couple have developed health issues.

Shafqat’s body is marred with deep wounds while bedsores have eaten away all the flesh from his back. Despite his myriad ailments, he has yet to be taken to a hospital for any sort of treatment. Amnesty International issued an alert regarding the disabled man’s deteriorating condition at the Faisalabad Central Jail, and penned a letter to the Inspector General of Prisons as did Malook, but nothing came of it.

“I messaged a sessions judge who posted pictures of his jail visit this Thursday on Facebook, and asked him if he happened to meet Shafqat who is on death row and in dire need of medical treatment. The judge dismissed him as a ‘hopeless case’… what do I say to that?” Malook expressed his disappointment with the attitude of the judiciary toward the plight of an ailing, destitute inmate of the minority community. “For one to be a Christian accused of blasphemy is sufficient grounds for the police, for judges, lawyers and society as a whole to abhor that individual.”

When last he had met with Shagufta nearly a year back, he recalled she was severely depressed. She wailed uncontrollably for the entire duration of his visit, saying she would die if kept confined any longer. Shagufta has been detained at a women’s prison in Multan, the only such prison in the entire province, and in the same cell which once held Aasia Bibi.

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