A man who is paralysed waist down and his wife were sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy by a sessions court on Friday in Toba Tek Singh in Punjab province. Shafqat Masih, 38 and his wife Shagufta, 42, who works in a church school were accused of sending text messages against the Holy Prophet last July and a case was filed against them by a lawyer and a cleric. Farrukh H Saif, executive director, World Vision in Progress which is defending them, told The Hindu on the phone that the organisation was looking after the couple's four children, three sons and a daughter between the ages of 12 and 6.

He said that when the police came to their house last year to verify the charges, they had brought along a local cable operator who had some enmity against the couple. Shafqat was thrown from his wheelchair, tortured and made to confess he was guilty of sending the offending text messages, Mr. Saif said. The entire family including the children were taken into custody, he added. Even in jail he is ill and suffers from huge bed sores. His wife works as a maid in the church school and the church had given them shelter. Mr. Saif said that the family had so many problems and why would they offend anyone. He said the sentence was to teach the minority community a lesson according to the prosecution lawyers. The court also fined them Rs. 1 lakh each.

Mr. Saif said there is no evidence that the text messages came from a phone owned by the couple. In the first place they had lost the phone some months before July last year and secondly there is no SIM card in their names. The only evidence the police produced was a bill for a SIM card from a shopowner which is unheard of. Mr. Saif said he will file an appeal on Tuesday against the death sentence in the high court. The couple were earlier living in Gojra and they had to be moved to Toba Tek Singh after there were huge protests over the alleged blasphemy incident. Last week in Lahore a conservancy worker Sawan Masih was sentenced to death for blasphemy. In January a Briton with a history of mental illness to suffered the same fate.