Now that Asia Bibi has finally left Pakistan and been reunited with her family in Canada, her prison cell has a new resident: yet another Christian woman condemned to death over blasphemy charges.
Bibi’s lawyer, Saif-ul Malook, told CT he will now take up the case of Shagufta Kausar, a 45-year-old mother of four, and her husband.
Christians are Pakistan’s largest religious minority after Hindus, comprising about 1.6 percent of the Muslim nation’s population of 210 million. However, the highest number of blasphemy charges are filed against Christians because of their poor status, their origins in the downtrodden “untouchable” caste, and their association with the West. [CT’s Quick to Listen podcast explains more.]
Bibi was accused in June 2009 of speaking blasphemous words against Muhammad, a crime punishable with death in Pakistan, and was convicted in November 2010. The Supreme Court of Pakistan finally acquitted Bibi in October 2018 over “contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses.”
Now Kausar is locked in the same prison cell in Multan Women Jail where Bibi has been incarcerated for many years. Kausar and her husband Shafqat Masih, 48, were condemned to death by a trial court in February 2014. The Christian couple hails from the infamous town of Gojra, where in 2009 more than 100 houses were set on fire and 7 Christians killed by a violent mob over blasphemy allegations. Since then, tensions between Christians and Muslims have regularly flared.
Masih is bedridden because of a spinal injury from 2004. Their four children, ages 5 to 13, were dependent on Kausar, who worked as a domestic helper in the house of Gojra bishop John Samuel until Muhammad Hussein, a prayer leader at a local mosque, accused Masih of texting blasphemous text messages from Kausar’s cell phone with her “connivance.”
Hussein alleged that around 10 p.m. on July 18, 2013, he was praying in the mosque when blasphemous text messages started pouring in. He said that he showed the text to others, including lawyer Sajjad Asghar Khokhar who called the number and said there was no answer, but blasphemous text messages were then also sent to Khokhar’s cell phone.
The people of the area surrounded the Gojra Police Station after Kausar and Masih were arrested. The mob demanded that the couple be handed to them so that they could be killed. The police resorted to including the harshest charges in order to disperse the protestors.
Malook told CT that the Gojra police also extracted a confession which was illegal and carries no validity under the law. “As was in Asia Bibi’s case, the trial court lawyers in this Christian couple’s case could not properly plead the case.”
Malook said the couple has been waiting five years for the Lahore High Court to hear their appeal against the trial court’s verdict. He plans to file another petition for a hearing.
“The couple is innocent,” Malook told CT, “and there is no legal substantial evidence available that proves they actually texted those messages.”
While the lawyer recently received a wave of global media attention for securing Bibi’s freedom from the Supreme Court, Malook told CT that he won’t necessarily pursue Kausar’s case the same way he did Bibi’s.
“Every legal case requires a different strategy and I have decided a different strategy for this case as per the facts and relevant laws,” Malook told CT.
However, he did offer some criticism on how inaccurate some of the Western advocacy over his cause célèbre client became.
“Sending false persecution news [in the West] does not help the Pakistani Christians back at home, as was in Asia Bibi’s case,” he told CT. “These days, social media is playing a central role in spreading false news. Several NGOs created hype to draw attention to themselves, which backfires for the local Christians.”
For example, Malook told Morning Star News that advocacy reports about Bibi’s failing mental and physical health were “totally baseless.” “Bibi never complained of mistreatment during her incarceration, but even then rumors claiming that she had been subjected to torture, both mentally and physically, were spread on the social media by people who were only interested in making the most out of her ordeal,” he told the persecution watchdog.
Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws go back to the Indian Penal Code, enacted by the British in the mid-19th century. These laws were applicable to people of all faiths.
According to a report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, from 1927 to 1987 only seven cases under the British blasphemy laws were registered. Then in the 1980s, the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq introduced stringent blasphemy laws through an executive order that were only Islam specific.
After these laws were introduced, from 1987 to 2014 at least 1,335 cases were registered and 57 people were extrajudicially killed. Through 2014, only 21 cases had been registered against Hindus, the largest religious minority in Pakistan, while 187 had been registered against Christians. (No blasphemy cases have been registered against Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Baha’is or Buddhists.)
Most Pakistani Christians are abhorred by majority Muslims because of their origins in the so-called “untouchable” Dalit background. Often blasphemy charges initially arise from conflicts over this perceived social status. For example, Bibi was accused over touching the drinking water of Muslim women.
Malook has faced negative attention from many fellow Muslims since he started defending Christians, and the Netherlands even offered him nationality if he wanted to leave his homeland for his safety. But he told CT, “I am back to defend these defenseless people.”