Human Rights Without Frontiers International – Pakistan: Death sentence for killers of Christian couple burned alive in Pakistan

World Watch Monitor, 24 November 2016. An Anti-Terrorism Court in Lahore, Pakistan yesterday (23 November) sentenced five men to death for the murder of a Christian couple who were burned alive in November 2014 for setting fire to some pages from a Qur’an.

A mob of about 600 people beat to near-death Shahzad Masih, 26, and his five-months-pregnant wife Shama Bibi, 24, for their “blasphemous” act on 4 Nov. 2014, in a village 60 kilometres from Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab region. The couple were then thrown into the large kiln where they worked as bonded labourers.

National outrage over their deaths saw the case moved to the Anti-Terrorism Court and the State become the prosecution claimant.

Yesterday, Judge Chaudhry Muhammad Azam imposed a fine of Rs 200,000 (US$2,000) to each of the five killers, Mehdi Khan, Riaz Kambo, Irfan Shakoor, Muhammad Hanif, and Hafiz Ishtiaq, who were convicted of inciting violence and of throwing the couple into the kiln.

Another eight men, Muhammad Hussain, Noorul Hasan, Muhammad Arsalan, Muhammad Haris, Muhammad Muneer, Muhammad Ramazan, Irfan and Hafiz Shahid, were jailed for two years and fined.

More than 50 people were originally charged under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act for “the use or threat of action … to coerce and intimidate or overawe the Government or the public … or create a sense of fear or insecurity in society”.

“Although several of the suspects were acquitted after statements by Shahzad’s brothers, still five have received the punishment of death, which is an extraordinary step by the court,” said Riaz Anjum from the Voice Society, which represented the murdered woman’s father, Mukhtar Masih, in court.

Timeline of events

On 2 November 2014, the couple were accused of the “blasphemy” of burning some pages from a Qur’an. Parveen Bibi, the wife of Masih’s eldest brother, explained that Masih’s late father, Nazar, “used to do black magic” in which he used amulets and other documents that she said might have contained Qur’anic verses.

That day, Shama Bibi had burned the pages and thrown the ashes onto a garbage heap outside their quarters.

Parveen Bibi told World Watch Monitor that her sister had never meant any disrespect to Islam, as she was illiterate and had no idea what the amulets contained. But some passers-by recognised the text on the partially burned pages and the situation quickly escalated.

Parveen Bibi said that Masih and his five brothers went to the kiln’s owner, Yousuf Gujjar, for whom they had worked for many years, to resolve the matter. She said that Gujjar had assured them that nothing would happen, but that because they owed him money, they could not leave the village.

Masih and Bibi were bonded labourers. This is a traditional method still used to enslave labourers across India and Pakistan, although officially illegal in Pakistan. The practice is recognised by the UN as a form of “modern slavery”. (See below)

Two days later, at around 6 am, a mob beat the couple and threw them into the kiln. A few policemen were present at the scene, but failed to ward off the mob. In December 2014, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered action to be taken against them.

The post-mortem report submitted to the Supreme Court in December 2014 stated that the couple were still alive when they were thrown into the kiln. In April this year, Yousuf Gujjar was bailed. He has now been acquitted.

Meanwhile, the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) reports that “the surviving children and grandfather, Mukhtar Masih, who is guardian for Suleman, Sonia and Poonam [the couple’s children] have been receiving death threats and abuse. Mr. Masih has asked for the BPCA to relocate them somewhere safer”.

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