A court in Lahore has sentenced five Muslims to death for the murders of Christian couple Shahzad and Shama Masih in November 2014. Eight others have received two-year prison sentences.
On 4 November 2014, the five Muslims tortured and killed impoverished Punjab Christians Shahzad Masih (26) and Shama Masih (24) after local villagers accused them of committing blasphemy by burning pages of the Quran. Incited by Muslim leaders over mosque loudspeakers, a mob of hundreds took part in the attack, throwing Shahzad and Shama, who was five months pregnant, into a burning brick kiln where they worked. The couple left three children.
On 25 November 2016, at an Anti-Terrorism Court, Judge Chaudhry Azam handed death sentences to Irfan Shakoor, Muhammad Hanif, Mehdi Khan, Riaz Kamboh and Hafiz Ishtiaq, and fined each 200,000 rupees (€2,760), for inciting violence against the Christians and throwing them into the kiln.
Lawyer Riaz Anjum, who represented Shama’s father Mukhtar Masih, told Morning Star News, “It is encouraging news for the Christian community in Pakistan. The families of the deceased people have suffered a lot of pressure, even though the state had become the complainant in the case to thwart any attempt to pressure the victims’ family for reaching a settlement with the powerful accused. But conviction of five people by the court is no small feat, and I hope this verdict would be seen as a stern warning against any such violence against minorities in the future.”
The lawyer said the convicts would probably file appeals with the high court against their sentences, but added, “I am confident that the high court will uphold the trial court’s verdict.”
Minority rights activist and chairman of the Pakistan Interfaith League Sajid Ishaq said it was a difficult but just decision. “Awarding death sentences to five persons and jail term of two years each to eight others is a big reassurance to the minority communities of Pakistan,” he told Morning Star News. “Today, the minority communities feel protected, and their confidence in the judiciary has gained a great deal of strength.”
Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, commented: “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.”
Shahzad and Shama were bonded labourers at a brick kiln in Chak 59 village near Kot Radha Kishan, Kasur District, about 60 km southwest of Lahore. On 2 November 2014, Shama was cleaning their living quarters when she found amulets her late father-in-law Nazar had used for black magic, and she began to burn them. A Muslim co-worker, Muhammad Irfan, said he saw Quranic verses among half-burnt papers and accused the family of desecrating the Quran. Under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, intent must be shown for a conviction of desecrating the Quran. Shama was illiterate, and could not have read what she was burning.
The next day, more Muslim neighbours accused Shama of burning pages of the Quran, and tensions rose in the area. The police were informed about a possible attack, but they only sent a mobile squad of five officers to monitor the situation. Overnight, announcements were made on village mosque loudspeakers calling for “death to the blasphemers”. The couple asked kiln owner Yousuf Gujjar to allow them flee to safety, but he would not let them leave.
Early on 4 November, a mob of at least six hundred Muslims (some say up to 3,000) gathered at the kiln (pictured) and attacked Shahzad and Shama. They tore off their clothes, kicked and beat them with fists and batons, broke their legs, dragged them behind a tractor and threw them into the furnace.
Onlookers thought Shama died before her body was thrown into the kiln, but the post-mortem report submitted to the Supreme Court in December 2014 stated that both were still alive when they were thrown into the kiln. Their eldest child, Suleman (aged 6 at the time of the murders), described on television interviews seeing his parents in the flames; his words suggested that they were still alive as they burned.
National and international outrage followed, prompting the Pakistani government to take the unprecedented step of becoming the complainant in the case. Many people were charged under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act – soon after the murders, local police chief Captain Jawad Qamar said a case had been registered against at least 2,000 people and that police had arrested 48 people.
Lawyer Riaz Anjum said 103 people were charged, 90 of whom were acquitted by the Anti-Terrorism Court. One of those acquitted was the owner of the brick kiln.
The British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) reports, “The surviving children and grandfather, Mukhtar Masih [Shama’s father], who is guardian for Suleman, Sonia and Poonam, have been receiving death threats and abuse. Mr Masih has asked for the BPCA to relocate them somewhere safer.”
The three children are pictured, left, receiving children’s Bibles from the BPCA in Kasur on 19 November 2016. The BPCA is committed to providing practical care for the family. It has repainted the family home, bought the children comfortable beds, cupboards and school supplies, and has provided a daily nanny to look after them. Now, however, the BPCA will have to relocate the family due to the increased threat.
After the trial, Mukhtar Masih said: “We were unable today to attend the court today due to the risk to our safety. 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 others poured kerosene over Shama and Shahzad and were also violent. Two years’ imprisonment for those who were involved in a lesser capacity for a crime that led to two deaths seems too lenient. My life and the lives of Suleman, Sonia and Poonam 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.”
(British Pakistani Christian Association, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Morning Star News, Release International, World Watch Monitor)