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A court in eastern Pakistan has sentenced a Christian couple to death for sending a blasphemous text message insulting the Prophet Muhammad, their lawyer said on Saturday.

Judge Mian Amir Habib handed the death sentence to Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar in a jail in the town of Toba Tek Singh on Friday, defence lawyer Nadeem Hassan told AFP.
Prosecution department officials confirmed the sentence. The impoverished couple, who are in their forties, have three children and live in the town of Gojra, which has a history of violence against Christians, Hassan said.

Both denied the charges, Hassan said, adding that they would appeal the sentence. Maulvi Mohammad Hussain, the prayer leader at a local mosque in Gojra, lodged a complaint against couple on July 21 last year for sending him a text message which he said was insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.

Hussain accused the husband of sending the message from his wife’s cellphone. However, defence lawyer Hassan said that the text originated from a cellphone which the couple had lost some time before the incident, so they could not have sent the message.

The defence 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. Pakistan has extremely strict laws against defaming Islam, including the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, and rights campaigners say they are often used to settle personal disputes.

In 2009 a mob attacked a Christian neighbourhood in Gojra and burned 77 houses and killed at least seven people after rumours that a Quran had been desecrated. On March 27 another Christian man Sawan Masih was sentenced to death in eastern city of Lahore for insulting the Prophet Muhammad during the course of a conversation with a Muslim friend in the Joseph Colony neighbourhood in March last year.

Some 97 per cent of the 180 million population are Muslim, and even unproven allegations can trigger a violent public response.

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