A Christian couple has been sentenced to death in Pakistan after being accused of sending a text message to a local Muslim leader insulting the prophet Mohammed, their lawyer and prosecutors say.
The couple has denied the charges and said they would appeal the sentence. Their lawyer Nadeem Hassan told the BBC that he believes the trial was conducted unfairly.
Defense attorney Hassan told the French news agency AFP that Judge Mian Amir Habib handed the death sentence to Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar on Friday, finding them guilty of sending a blasphemous text message to the imam of their local mosque.
Pakistani soldiers stand guard at a local church before Christmas in Multan, Pakistan on Thursday, Dec 24, 2009. Pakistan's Christian leadership decided to celebrate Christmas cautiously due to ongoing violence and attacks on the Christian community in Gojra. (Photo: AP/Khalid Tanveer)
The imam, Maulvi Mohammad Hussain, of the local mosque in Gojra – a town with a history of violence against Christians - filed the complaint against them last July, accusing them of sending him the text message which he characterized as insulting to the Prophet Mohammed.
According to AFP, the imam said the husband sent the message from his wife’s cellphone. However, the couple’s lawyer said the message was sent from a phone that his clients had lost before July.
“The defense lawyer said that the couple had suspected rivals of implicating them into blasphemy case to settle personal scores and that they had ties with the complainant,” AFP wrote.
Under Pakistani law, the death penalty can be handed down for insulting the prophet Mohammed; however, the BBC noted that “Pakistan has a de facto moratorium on the death penalty so it is unlikely the couple will be executed.”
“Critics argue that Pakistan's blasphemy laws are frequently misused to settle personal scores and that members of minority groups are also unfairly targeted,” the BBC reported.
The husband and wife who are in their forties and have three children are impoverished, their lawyer said.
In 2009, a Christian neighborhood in Gojra was attacked by a mob which burned 77 houses and killed seven after rumors circulated that a Koran had been desecrated.
An elderly Pakistani doctor was arrested and charged with blasphemy in December.
The 72-year-old was accused of “posing as a Muslim” after reportedly being secretly recorded reading a verse from the Koran.
The man ascribes to the Ahmadi faith, a minority Muslim group often persecuted by the mainstream Muslim community.