(CNSNews.com) – It was one of the most gruesome killings linked to allegations of blasphemy in Pakistan, and now two Muslims convicted of burning alive a young Christian man and his pregnant wife have been acquitted.
Shahzad Masih and his wife Shama were attacked and murdered in Punjab province in 2014 by a Muslim mob enraged by claims that a Qur’an had been desecrated.
Mobilized by announcements over mosque loudspeakers in nearby villages, the mob dragged the couple from a building where they were being held against their will.
Amid cries of “Allahu Akbar” and “kill infidel Christians,” according to eyewitnesses, the assailants beat Shahzad and Shama with clubs before burning them alive in a brick kiln where they worked as indentured laborers. The oldest of their three children, then aged six, witnessed the murder. Relatives reportedly fled the scene with the other two.
In a country where vigilante killings of people accused of blasphemy are not rare, the grisly slaying sent shockwaves through minority communities and drew condemnation further afield, with a senior Vatican official, the late Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, saying he was “shocked by the immense barbarity of this act.”
“I ask myself, how can one stand by and watch when crimes religion declares to be legitimate are committed?” Tauran, who was in charge of interfaith dialogue at the Holy See, was quoted as saying on Vatican Radio. “Not even animals behave like this!”
Then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged justice would be done, saying that “a responsible state cannot tolerate mob rule and public lynching with impunity.”
Eyewitness estimates of the mob put the number at between 400 and 1,000.
Police in Punjab registered a case against 660 individuals, and the province’s anti-terrorism court (ATC) later indicted 106 of them. In November 2016, the ATC sentenced five men to death, and ten others to jail terms for their roles in the killings. The rest were acquitted.
The five on death row appealed, and last week the Lahore High Court acquitted two of them – Hafiz Ishtiaq, an imam, and Muhammad Hanif – while upholding the death sentences of the remaining three.
‘Cycle of violence’
Blasphemy is a capital offense in the world’s second biggest Islamic country, where mainstream “Barelvi” Sunni Muslims are known for their zealous views regarding blasphemy and shari’a.
Statistics compiled by human rights groups show that Christians, Ahmadis and other minorities are disproportionately affected by the notorious laws, while outside the legal system numerous instances of mob violence and murders linked to blasphemy accusations have been recorded.
Often the accusations are vague, and in some cases accusations of blasphemy have been used as pretexts to settle personal gripes or business feuds.
In the case of Shahzad and Shama, after the young mother burned some papers and items belonging to her recently-deceased father-in-law, a Muslim co-worker claimed to have found burnt remnants of pages from a Qur’an.
According to the Legal Evangelical Association Development (LEAD), a non-profit advocacy group involved in the case from the outset, eyewitnesses reported that the couple had wanted to flee the area. However, their employer claimed they owed him money and had them detained in a building near the kiln, where they were held until the attack took place.
Commenting on the acquittal, LEAD director, human rights lawyer Sardar Mushtaq Gill said Thursday that the authorities in Pakistan “refuse to learn that this cycle of violence against minorities, particularly Christians, will end only if the Islamist perpetrators are brought to justice.”
Gill said justice was far from having been delivered in the murder of the couple.
Human Rights Focus Pakistan president Naveed Walter also criticized the acquittals.
“It is shocking that five years have passed but justice has not been given to the victims’ family,” he said on Friday.
Walter said several court cases involving minorities, including blasphemy laws, have been dragging on for years.
He said HRFP has observed that cases where minorities are victims tend to be drawn out, due to pressure on judges from radical groups. Similarly, decisions are sometimes delayed to avoid resistance from Islamic elements.
Walter said delaying justice serves to encourage perpetrators, and may result in more problems for minorities.
LEAD director Gill has been hounded and faced death threats for his work on the Shahzad and Shama case. Representing eyewitnesses to the murders, he and they were threatened both inside and outside court premises during proceeding in 2016.
He recalled being visited in June 2016 by three men on the pretext of discussing a legal matter, who after turning the conversation towards issues of blasphemy, including the Asia Bibi case, took out a firearm and threatened to shoot him if those accused of murdering the couple were convicted.
After a further court appearance a week later, Gill said two men on motorcycles chased the car he was traveling in and opened fire, missing the vehicle.
“After this incident, I and my family went into hiding in Pakistan before being forced to flee from Pakistan secretly on August 8, 2016,” he said. Now in Sri Lanka, Gill and his family are awaiting resettlement as refugees.
Under Pakistan’s penal code, a person convicted of insulting Mohammed or desecrating the Qur’an faces a death sentence or life imprisonment.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent statutory body, called on the State Department every year since 2002 to designate Pakistan a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for severe religious freedom violations.
The department overruled the recommendations each year – until last November.