Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court indicted 106 people, including three Muslim clerics believed to have participated in inciting violence in the 2014 murder of a Christian couple after rumors spread that they burnt a Quran.
Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reports that the 106 people are believed to have participated in the lynching of Shahzad and Shama Masih, who were accused publicly of burning the Quran and, as a result, beaten to death and then burnt in a kiln for the alleged transgression. Reports conflict on whether the couple was still alive by the time they were tossed into the furnace of the kiln, where their bodies were burnt and, their family reported at the time, “there was nothing left to bury.” Shama Masih was pregnant at the time.
Among the 106 indictments were Maulvi Mohammad Hussain, Maulvi Arshad Baloch, and Maulvi Noorul Hassan, three Muslim clerics believed to have participated in “persistent provocative speech” inciting crowds to attack and kill the Masihs. They managed to organize a crowd estimated by Dawn to be about 400 people who participated in the beating and burning of the couple. In addition to the clerics, the owner of the kiln that served the Masihs as a place of employment has been indicted.
Pakistan’s Tribune adds that the court has summoned another 32 people to speak as witnesses on Friday. Investigators hope to confirm whether police were present at the time of the murder and whether they made any attempts to stop the crime.
In November 2014, shortly following the murder, Pakistani officials arrested 43 people in relation to the attack. Those arrested were believed to have directly participated in beating and burning the couple, not just in amassing the growing mob.
While the murder was believed to be a purely hate-driven crime at the time, Christian Today reports that the poor couple also had significant debts, so it is possible that some who participated in the murder did so for financial reasons. Witness testimonies are also expected to shine a light on this aspect of the killing.
Before being beaten and burnt to death, the couple was kidnapped for two days from their workplace and trapped in the brick factory. At the time, witnesses noted that the rumor of the Quran burning apparently began following the death of Shahzad’s father; Shama disposed of a Quran belonging to him, in addition to a number of other personal items given his demise. There is no proof that the action, if it occurred, was a political statement.
Pakistan still observes laws against blasphemy, though this murder is considered extra-judicial since Shama’s alleged crime of disposing of a Quran was not addressed in a court, but immediately taken to be true and acted upon by an angry mob. Christian leaders in the communities at the time condemned both the crime itself and Muslim leaders who did not condemn such behavior and even incited it. Bishop of Islamabad Rufin Anthony called the attack “the worst religiously motivated hate crime in Pakistan’s history” and noted the silence of Muslim leaders in the face of the murders. Muslim leaders at the time blamed police officials for allowing the crime, with Pakistan’s President of the Council of Muslim scholars alleging that the crime “would not have happened if the local police had not shown negligence.”
Blasphemy laws in Pakistan enjoy strong support, with a recent Pew poll showing that 75% of Pakistanis agree that they are “necessary to protect Islam in our country.”