A Pakistani court has overturned a death sentence handed down to a Christian couple for blasphemy, citing a lack of evidence.
Shagufta Kausar, a caretaker in a Christian school, and her partially paralysed husband Shafqat Emmanuel were convicted in 2014 of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
But on Thursday, the couple’s lawyer Saiful Malook said the Lahore High Court had acquitted them, commenting: “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.” He said he expected the pair to be freed next week after the court orders are published.
A prosecution lawyer told the Reuters news agency that the latest ruling would be challenged.
Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan, and though no-one has ever been officially executed for it, dozens have been killed by mobs after being accused.
Human rights groups have welcomed the ruling.
Amnesty International South Asia said in a statement, “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.”
The married couple were convicted in 2014 of sending text messages insulting the Prophet Muhammad to a local imam. But her brother told the BBC last year that he doubted they were literate enough even to have written the abusive messages.
Human rights groups say blasphemy allegations are frequently used to settle personal scores or target religious minorities
The couple’s lawyer told the BBC last year that in their trial they suggested a Christian neighbour they had argued with might have purchased a SIM card in Shagufta Kausar’s name and sent the messages in order to frame them for blasphemy.
In April, the European Parliament passed a motion condemning Pakistan for failing to protect religious minorities, focusing on the case of the couple.
Blasphemy convictions are often eventually overturned on appeal in Pakistan. Last year, Christian Asia Bibi left the country after more than a decade in prison, having been acquitted by the Supreme Court. The verdict led to violent protests by hardline religious groups.
Christians make up under 2% of Pakistan’s population. Most are descendants of those who converted from Hinduism to escape their low-caste status and many are among the poorest in Pakistan.