FOR THE FIRST TIME, SHAFQAT AND SHAGUFTA SPEAK ABOUT THEIR DEATH SENTENCE – BY GERT-JAN SCHAAP OF VOM NETHERLANDS
Thank God, they weren’t hanged in the end, but Shafqat and Shagufta did spend long, lonely years in depressing cells on death row, separated from each other and their children. The couple, from Pakistan, were both condemned to death in 2014, for supposedly having sent blasphemous text messages. To this day, they have no idea who inflicted this false accusation on them, or why.
I met up with Shafqat and Shagufta in a humble terraced house in a secret location. Their children – three sons and a daughter, ranging in age from fourteen to twenty – were all at home when I called. This was not the first time
I’d spoken to the children; we’d previously met in late 2017 to write the story of their improbably sad situation as a family.
Back then, they hadn’t seen their parents for nearly four years; Shafqat and Shagufta had been on death row for three years already by that time, sentenced to be hanged for blasphemy. At that time, the four were in hiding with relatives elsewhere in Pakistan, because even the children of alleged blasphemers are not safe from revenge attacks.
NOTHING SHORT OF A MIRACLE
For several decades, no Pakistani judge ever dared to pronounce anyone not guilty of the charge of blasphemy. If they did, they would be risking their own necks for incurring the wrath of fanatical Islamists. Until fairly recently, death sentences for blasphemy were routinely commuted in Pakistan to the actual sentence of life imprisonment in the wrenching isolation of a cell on death row.
Because of that sobering reality, my write-up of the 2017 interview with the children ended with this grim line: “Shafqat and Shagufta are likely destined to spend the rest of their lives behind bars, short of a miracle.” And God duly did perform that miracle last year. Shafqat and Shagufta were eager to share their story.
A folded wheelchair is kept on the porch. Shafqat was paralysed from the waist down in a 2004 accident. I found him reclining at an angle on the sofa beneath the front window. Shagufta was sitting on a chair beside him. Her brother Joseph, who campaigned for years to secure their release, joined us for the day and interpreted for us, since neither husband nor wife speak much English.
What were the first days in jail like?
Shagufta responded, “Horrendous. It was a dirty little cell. In summer, with no window and no ventilation of any kind, it felt at times as though I’d landed in hell. In the early days, my thoughts would run off in all directions: How are the children? Who’s looking after them now? Is Shafqat coping? Why are we here? What will become of us? The tension was unbearable. At first, I couldn’t sleep or eat. I thought my end had come. It was so traumatic, the only thing I could do was pray harder.”
With a nod of agreement, Shafqat said, “My wife and our children were continually on my mind … Nobody would tell us anything, and that left me massively stressed and worried sick.”
Shagufta added, “During the day, I tried to busy myself cleaning things and pacing around the cell. Sometimes, I would pray for hours on end. When I was at prayer at night, the warders would sometimes ask, “Who is it you’re talking to all the time?” One of the warders, a Muslim, was deeply struck when she heard how personally I approached God in prayer. Muslims are accustomed to praying set prayers at set times, and aren’t inclined to pour their hearts out. She asked me whether I could pray for her, and from that time on, she became a lot kinder to me.”
What went through your minds when you were sentenced to hang in 2014?
Shagufta replied emotionally, “We heard the verdict during a prison court hearing, so not in a proper courtroom. They just found it too risky to hold the trial in court; once you’ve been labelled a blasphemer, you can be attacked and murdered on the spot. When the death sentence was pronounced, I fainted.”
PARODY OF JUSTICE
Both husband and wife said that their lawyers acted in total dereliction of duty; they only spoke to confirm their own names for the record, as required by law, but after that clammed up completely. They didn’t even speak up to protest that the judge was failing to ask the defendants a single question. “They failed to defend us,” Shafqat said in a voice with some sharpness. “Not even when we were condemned to death did they spring into action. They said nothing more than ‘OK’.
Spreading his hands, he made his point. “Sadly, this really is typical of the Pakistani legal system, most lawyers will do what they’re paid to do and nothing more. In our case, their presence in court was a mere formality.”
For her part, Shagufta said, “It was only by a miracle that later on we got a truly good lawyer; the same gentleman who represented Asia Bibi. His name is Saif ul-Malook. As it happens, I found myself in the cell right next to Asia Bibi in my last prison, and on Christian festival days they let us sing and pray together for an hour. What an enormous boost that was to both of us! Also, when we were together, we prayed – out loud – for all the prison staff. We were thanking the Lord for them and asking Him to be with them, so that they would treat us well. We asked Him to pour out His grace in their hearts. They were standing right beside us and could hear the prayer perfectly well. As well as that, we prayed for all our fellow prisoners.”
In blasphemy cases, although a death sentence is routinely handed down, convicts are not actually executed any more. Were you even aware of this practice of commuting the sentence?
Shagufta shook her head. “We hadn’t a clue what fate awaited us. We’re just simple folk with not much schooling; what would we know? I was fearing that we would be hanged. In my mind, when sitting in my cell, I often pictured the noose being tightened around my neck and the trapdoor giving way under my feet …”
Shafqat added, “The death sentence gave me sleepless nights, too. I thought it was the end.”
FURNACE OF AFFLICTION
There were worldwide prayers for their release. Shafqat and Shagufta both emphasised that there were many times at which the power of these prayers was palpable to them in prison.
“Every day, I was praying for a miracle, right there in my cell,” Shagufta said. “As time wore on, my faith grew, as did my certainty that God was going to perform a miracle and open the doors for us, just as He once set Paul free from prison and delivered Daniel’s three friends from the fiery furnace. It meant a great deal to me that so many were praying for us around the world.”
Shafqat nodded his agreement and said that he too, prayed a great deal in his cell.
“I found solace in Psalm 23, which I read every day,” he went on. “It gave me the strength to go on. Like Shagufta, I fortunately had a Bible in my cell, which I read a lot every day. Was I angry with God? No, never. I was sure He would let us go free one day.”
Shagufta added, “This whole situation actually brought me closer to Him. It was in that very time of trial that I sensed God in so many ways. Once, for instance, I was really craving grapes and apples. I missed the taste of them so badly. So I told the Lord about it, and I told a few of the guards, too. That same day, someone who could never have known what I’d said brought me a bunch of grapes and a couple of apples! It was a Dominican priest, Father James Channon, who was coming to pay me a visit of encouragement. The warders were dumbfounded too, to see this.”
She enthusiastically shared another remarkable experience. “I had high blood pressure and symptoms of diabetes. I really thought I was going to die. Then, in a vision, I saw an image of the Cross. I prayed fervently for healing: for myself and for other prisoners who had the same problems.”
With wonder in her voice, she went on: “God completely healed me. A test confirmed it, too. And then the prison doctor had all the other detainees with the same complaints tested, and they had all been healed!”
As is all too typical in such blasphemy cases, the couple’s appeal against their sentence was postponed time and again, but in the end it did go ahead – with an unexpected resolution.
Shafqat described loudly, with raised hands, how the sentence was overturned. “The miracle came on 3 June 2020: we were set free! It took me a little while to find out about it back in jail, from the other prisoners, who’d read about it in the papers. ‘You’ve been cleared of blasphemy,’ they said, and they let me read the article for myself. I could hardly believe my eyes.”
Shagufta recalled, “As soon as the appeal verdict was published in the national press, the prison governess came to me and explained that our charge of blasphemy had been quashed for lack of evidence. On the day we were let out, she gave me a hug and asked me to forgive her if she or any of her staff had wronged me.”
The couple’s joyful reunion with each other and with their children, after eight years apart, is permanently etched in the memories of both of them.
Shafqat described the day, “I shall never forget the moment when I could finally hold my wife and children to my bosom again. It was about a month after the acquittal, once all the dragged-out formalities had been seen to.”
Shagufta chipped in: “We laughed together, we wept together, and we talked and talked and talked …” Recalling the emotions, they looked at each other with laughing eyes, spontaneously linking hands.
Shagufta described how physically wrecked her husband looked when she got to see him. “He’d developed a huge open sore on his back from all that lying. It moved me to tears to see it. But I still thanked God that we finally had each other back, and at the same time I started asking Him urgently to heal Shafqat. The children helped him right away to take a shower, and they cleaned out the wound.”
When the couple managed – in deepest secrecy – to leave Pakistan last year, they were first looked after for a while in a closely-guarded location. It was obvious that they needed, with the help of the authorities, to get out of their homeland as quickly as possible, since their acquittal had raised the ire of Muslim fundamentalists. Even their lawyer, Saif ul-Malook, received death threats for having successfully represented them.
Have the fear and tension that you lived with for all those years now started to dissipate?
Shagufta shook her head. “It’s impossible to forget what we went through for eight years. Sometimes, I still wake up with a start, but I’m glad to say that it quickly dawns on me that I’m not in my cell any more after all; I’m out of Pakistan.”
She pointed outside to people walking down the street under a mild autumn sun. “I go for a lot of walks. It’s so remarkable to me. That I can now just move around at will.”
Shafqat concluded, “A great injustice has been done to us, but it is God’s business to avenge that, and not ours. We thank Him daily for our freedom. That I am sitting here now with my wife and children is nothing less than a miracle of the Lord.