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‘Watershed’ sentences for Muslims who burned alive a Christian couple

South Asia

‘Watershed’ sentences for Muslims who burned alive a Christian couple

Five men including a Muslim cleric were given the death penalty by an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan on 24 November 2016 for their crime of burning alive a Christian couple after falsely accusing them of blasphemy in 2014.

Shahzad Masih and his then pregnant wife Shama Bibi were attacked by a mob of “at least 3000 people” near the town

Shama and Shahzad Masih

Shama and Shahzad Masih

of Kot Radha Kishan in Kasur district, on 4 November 2014. The attackers were mobilized after the accused made announcements from mosques and alleged that the couple had indulged in blasphemy, which according to Pakistani law is punishable by death. Critics of the blasphemy law however point out that it is mostly abused to settle personal scores, frequently against Christians.

Masih and his wife were beaten to near death and then were thrown into a large furnace located within a brick kiln where they both worked as bonded laborers. Their eldest son, Suleman, who was only 6 years old when this incident took place, had recounted to the media as to how he saw his month and father “twitching in the flames of fire that slowly consumed them.”

“A total of 103 people had been charged in the case. But the court in the eastern city of Lahore had acquitted 90, including the owner of the brick kiln,” said Riaz Anjum, lawyer representing the couple’s family, to the media.

The owner of the kiln had been accused of locking the couple up as they attempted to escape because he was fearful that they would default on the debt that they owed to him.

In a rare verdict, possibly the first in recent times, Judge Chaudhry Muhammad Azam of the Lahore anti-terrorism court, awarded the death sentence to five major suspects including a Muslim cleric and also imposed a fine of Rupees 200,000 on each for lynching the couple. Eight other people were sentenced for two years imprisonment in the same case.

Briefing media on the judgement, Advocate Anjum said that while the five people who were awarded the death sentence were involved in dragging, beating and burning the couple, the other eight played a supportive role.

The family of the couple however expressed their dissatisfaction with the judgement.

Mukhtar Masih, father of Shama Bibi, told the London-based charity British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA), “I am disappointed with today’s result as my eldest daughter, Yasmeen, who saw the whole incident, witnessed at least 15 men involved in the brutal violence against my daughter, Shama, and her husband, Shahzad,”

“Only five of those men have been convicted with a death sentence yet the other poured kerosene over Shama and Shahzad and were also violent. Two years imprisonment for those who were involved in lesser capacity for a crime that lead to two deaths seems too lenient.” he added.

Mukhtar Masih, who is now also guardian to the three children of the deceased couple, reported that he and the family are receiving death threats and abuse.

“My life and the lives of Suleman, Sonia and Poonam [Children of Shama and Shazad Masih] have been devastated. 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.”

In a statement released to the media, Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said, “These convictions are a watershed moment for the Pakistani Christians.  It is rare for perpetrators of violence against Christians to receive a conviction, for the sentencing to be so strong in this court case sends out a strong message that violence will be met with the weight of the law. The perceived impunity for mob attacks on Christians has been countered and now hopefully will reduce such crime.”

“The family of Shama and Shahzad now need a time for solace and healing. The ongoing case and the constant death threats on the family have had their toll. The couple’s children often question why they and their parents were hated so much. The government of Pakistan must ensure that they work with us and other groups to ensure the protection of this beleaguered family it should be of paramount importance.  Quite frankly the family have suffered enough.” He added.