A Pakistani court has overturned a lower court decision and acquitted a Christian couple who were sentenced to death more than seven years ago for committing blasphemy after European lawmakers sharply criticized the case.
The Lahore High Court on June 3 ordered the release of Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, the couple's lawyer, Saiful Mulook, said.
The married couple were jailed in 2014 after being convicted for text messages insulting the Prophet Mohammed that they reportedly sent to a shopkeeper and another man even though neither of the defendants is literate.
"I am very happy that we were able to get the release of this couple, who are some of the most helpless people in our society," Mulook was quoted by AFP as saying, adding he expects the couple to be freed next week after the court orders are published.
"Today’s decision puts an end to the seven-year long ordeal of a couple who should not have been convicted nor faced a death sentence in the first place," Amnesty International's South Asia Deputy Director Dinushika Dissanayake said in a statement, calling on authorities to provide security to the couple and their lawyer.
The case is "emblematic of the harassment, intimidation, and attacks that those accused of ‘blasphemy’ routinely face and highlights the urgent need to repeal" the country's blasphemy laws, Dissanayake said.
While blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, the European Parliament approved a motion in April condemning the country for failing to protect religious minorities, including Ahmadis, Shi'a, Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs.
"The evidence on which the couple were convicted can be considered deeply flawed," the resolution said.
Insulting Islam is punishable by death in Pakistan, and the mere rumor of blasphemy can lead to lynchings by mobs.
Rights campaigners say accusations are often made to settle personal disputes.