When a Pakistani court sentenced a Christian couple in Punjab Province to death in 2014 over a blasphemous text message that they denied sending, the case caused an international outcry.
Police never recovered the mobile phone or SIM card used to send the blasphemous remarks about the Prophet Muhammad. But with angry extremists clamoring for a conviction, a judge declared that Shagufta Kausar and her husband, Shafqat Emmanuel, had sent the English-language text message to the imam of a local mosque.
Pakistani rights groups say the problem with the verdict is that the impoverished Christian couple is illiterate. They do not speak English, and even struggle to read or write in their own language of Urdu.
“Radicalism in society has reached new and frightening levels,” the Farrukh Saif Foundation said when it filed an appeal on behalf of the couple in April 2014.
“Matters regularly spiral out of control and result in vicious acts of mob justice,” the NGO said. “Many times it has been observed that law enforcement agencies, and even the institutions charged with delivering justice, have failed in their duty to provide justice due to the enormous pressure that is applied by vociferous and aggressive extreme elements.”
Seven years after their conviction, the couple remains in prison waiting for a court to hear their appeal.
Their hearings have repeatedly been postponed without explanation — most recently, in February.
Now, the European Parliament is highlighting their plight as one of several examples of why Pakistan’s special trade status with the European Union should be reviewed and possibly revoked.
Such a move could mean billions of dollars in lost trade for Pakistani textile exporters — a massive blow to an economy already struggling from structural weaknesses and the COVID pandemic.
The Generalized Scheme of Preferences-Plus (GSP-Plus) is a trade tool that allows goods from developing countries to be brought into another country without paying tariffs. The aim is to help vulnerable countries develop their economies.
For Pakistan, GSP-Plus status in the EU has allowed Pakistan to export textiles and clothing there worth billions of dollars every year since 2014 without customs duties.
It’s a competitive edge that gives a great deal of incentive for textile exports from Pakistan to reach the EU.
That has made textile exports vital for Pakistan’s struggling economy — bringing the country $6.15 billion a year from EU buyers, or about 82 percent of all the goods Pakistan exports to the EU.
But the special trade status comes with strings attached.
To maintain the favorable trade conditions with the EU, GSP-Plus countries must show progress toward ratifying and implementing 27 international conventions on human rights, labor rights, and environmental protection.
The latest EU review on Pakistan’s progress in 2020 expressed concerns that it was backsliding on those commitments.
European concerns about Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws were raised further when deadly violence erupted in April during anti-France protests in Lahore by a banned radical Islamist group, Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan (TLP).
The TLP has waged the anti-France campaign since President Emmanuel Macron last year defended the right of a satirical French magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad — an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.
To be sure, blasphemy is a lightning rod for controversy in Pakistan. Even the slightest suggestion of an insult to Islam can trigger violent protests, incite lynch mobs, and bring together rival political factions under the common cause of defending the faith.
But critics within Pakistan also argue there is strong evidence the blasphemy laws are often misused by extremists or abused by individuals who make false accusations in order to settle personal vendettas.
Pakistani security analyst Amir Rana says Prime Minister Imran Khan has chosen a risky policy of trying to appease radical extremists over the issue, only to find they “demand more and more.”
On April 29, a resolution passed by an overwhelming majority of the European Parliament declared that Pakistan is failing to bring an end to human rights violations that stem from widespread abuse of its blasphemy laws.
Naming Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel as victims of a flawed justice system, the resolution says that “the continued abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan” is “exacerbating existing religious divides” and “fomenting a climate of religious intolerance, violence, and discrimination.”
The resolution says Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are “used to target vulnerable minority groups in the country, including Shi’a, Ahmadis, Hindus, and Christians.”
It says Pakistan should “ultimately abolish” them because they are “incompatible” with the human rights conventions Islamabad must comply with in order to keep its special trade status.
Shada Islam, an independent Brussels-based analyst who focuses on relations between Europe and Asia, tells RFE/RL that the resolution is “a warning shot from the European Parliament.”
“It has alerted the authorities [in Islamabad] to the debate that is going on in Brussels” over Pakistan’s human rights record.
“Hopefully, they will take on board some of the criticism,” Islam tells RFE/RL. “If they want to maintain their exports to the EU, they will have to start working quite hard to meet some of the demands that have been made by the European Union.”
The Pakistani government has expressed disappointment over the resolution.
Islamabad’s Foreign Office says the call by European lawmakers “reflects a lack of understanding in the context of blasphemy laws and associated religious sensitivities in Pakistan — and the wider Muslim world.”
The Foreign Office says the “unwarranted commentary about Pakistan’s judicial system and domestic laws are regrettable,” adding that the resolution comes “at a time of rising Islamophobia and populism.”
“Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy with a vibrant civil society, free media, and independent judiciary, which remains fully committed to the promotion and protection of human rights for all its citizens without discrimination,” it says.
However, the European Parliament’s resolution goes much further in its criticism of Pakistan than the issues it raises about the abuse of blasphemy laws.
It calls on Islamabad to “allocate all possible resources into investigating and prosecuting cases of religious persecution.”
It condemns “the use of the death penalty under any circumstances” and calls on Islamabad to urgently turn its “de facto moratorium into a real abolition of the death penalty.”
Crucially, it warns that Pakistan may be backsliding on some of the conventions it must ratify and implement.
“These allegations of backsliding and not living up to the conventions are basically about the International Labor Organization’s conventions,” Islam says.
Basically, she says, European lawmakers want to ensure that “countries which sign up and receive European Union trade benefits actually comply with and abide by” international conventions on human rights and labor rights — including “child labor, prison labor, forced labor. All of those issues.”
Ultimately, it will be up to the European Commission to determine whether there is a real backsliding by Pakistan on its commitments. But Islam says that process is likely to take months rather than weeks.
“I’ve been told there is no real deadline for this,” Islam says. “It’s an ongoing review — and this review will continue, It’s not going to be done tomorrow or in the next few weeks.”
“Decisions are going to have to be taken not just by the European Commission and the European Parliament, but also by EU member states,” she says. “Decisions are not just taken on the basis of charges made. They have to be monitored and verified.”
Then, she says, “the question of geopolitics becomes very important.” That’s because a decision to revoke Pakistan’s GSP-Plus status “would have enormous geopolitical consequences, not to mention economic consequences on a country like Pakistan that relies so much on its textile exports to the European Union.”