Pakistan has sentenced five people to death in the gruesome 2014 murder of a Christian couple at the hands of a Muslim mob, tortured and burnt to death in the brick kiln they worked at.
Christian advocacy groups noted last week that Pakistan had yet to hold any trials for those arrested and charged with instigating the violent episode that took the lives of Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi after the couple was accused of burning pages of the Quran.
On Wednesday, however, a Pakistani anti-terrorism court issued the five death sentences for individuals believed to have called for mobs to congregate and attack the couple. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reports that witnesses had claimed to hear official announcements from their local mosques in Kot Radha Kishan, where the incident occurred, demanding they “gather at the Yousaf brick kiln where 25-year-old Shama and her husband Shahzad Masih worked as bonded labourers.”
“The five people awarded the death sentence were involved in dragging, beating and burning the couple while the other eight played a supportive role according to the judgement,” Masih family attorney Riaz Anjum told the Agence France-Presse.
In addition to torturing and killing the couple, Dawn cites witnesses stating that the Muslim mob “held hostage five policemen who tried to rescue the couple” and “manhandled” journalists trying to document the event. Witnesses reported chants of “Allahu akbar” and “kill the infidel Christians” as they tortured and killed the couple.
Masih and Bibi had three children, and Bibi was reportedly pregnant at the time of her death.
While the government eventually processed 103 people in relation to the case, and the AFP puts the number of participants at “hundreds,” Dawn estimates that number at “over 1,000.” The British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) estimates that 3,000 people participated in the lynching. Anjum notes that 90 people of the 103 involved in the incident were acquitted.
Among those released was Yousaf Gujjar, the owner of the brick kiln in which the couple worked. Some witnesses had alleged that Gujjar was concerned the illiterate, impoverished couple would flee the job despite their substantial debt to him, and speculated that he had planted the Quran pages in their home furnace, knowing they would be unable to identify them as such.
The BPCA, which has aided the couple’s surviving children financially since the incident occurred, notes that those who have spoken to them say the couple had pleaded with Gujjar to allow them to flee following the blasphemy accusation. Instead of helping them leave, Gujjar reportedly “locked the couple in a store room on his land after they asked to leave his kiln slave camp, to flee a potential mob attack.”
The couple’s family issued a statement through the BPCA, noting that they were “unable today to attend the court today due to the risk to our safety” and found the five death sentences amid a crowd of thousands disappointing. Even more worrisome, the sentences have resulted in renewed calls from Muslims for attacks on the family.
“We are now starting to receive death threats from all the families of those accused and fear for our lives. This small justice could still end up costing us even more,” Shama’s father said.
Pakistan’s record with handling Muslim mob violence provides little reason to hope that the family will be safe from retaliation. Blasphemy against Islam is a crime in Pakistan, with blasphemy directed at Muhammad in particular punishable by death. More alarming, however, is the vigilante justice by Muslim mobs that law enforcement does little to curb. In October, Pakistani officials addressed violence against Christians by ordering that house churches shut down, lest they incur the wrath of local mobs. That latest directive followed repeated calls for the death penalty against Christians accused of blasphemy, including a 16-year-old boy.