Pakistani court acquits 20 men accused of lynching Christian couple

(Reuters/Mohsin Raza)Members of the Pakistani Christian community carry wooden crosses and a casket during a demonstration to condemn the death of a Christian couple in a village in Punjab province on Tuesday, in Lahore, November 5, 2014.

A Pakistani anti-terrorism court has acquitted 20 men who were suspected of lynching and burning a Christian couple alive in a brick kiln in 2014.

Shahzad Masih and his wife Shama, who worked at a brick kiln in Kot Radha Kishan area, were lynched and burned alive by enraged Muslims in November 2014 after they were accused of desecrating the Quran.

Scores of villagers were arrested in connection with the lynching, and five men, including a cleric, have been sentenced to death by a court in 2016, while 10 others were given varying jail terms, according to News 18. That same year, 93 other suspects in the case were acquitted by the court.

On Saturday, the anti-terrorism court in Lahore acquitted 20 suspects, saying their role in the lynching and killing of the Christian couple could not be established.

Reports have indicated that the villagers who took part in the lynching were provoked by a local prayer leader through an announcement from area mosques. The mob had reportedly tortured the couple before throwing them into the furnace of the kiln. Five policemen tried to rescue the couple, but they were held hostage by the mob.

The Christian couple was still alive when they were thrown into the kiln, according to an autopsy report submitted to the Supreme Court in December 2014. They had left behind their three young children, Suleman, Sonia and Poonam.

The blasphemy accusation against the couple was reportedly made by Yousaf Gujjar, who owned the brick kiln where Shama and Shahzad worked as bonded laborers. Gujjar is believed to have made the allegations because the couple owed him money and they were not able to pay back. However, he was granted bail based on the claim that he was not present at the brick kiln when the lynching took place.

According to the First Information Report (FIR) filed at the time, there were 500 to 600 people involved in burning the couple.

An investigation at the time found that Gujjar and his son were "guilty of egging on a prayer leader" to declare the couple guilty of blasphemy.

Attorney Aneeqa Maria, who is representing Shama Masih's family, said that granting bail to Gujjar had raised doubts about the Punjab government's dedication to delivering justice to the family.

"The government itself is complainant in the case, while the police officials present on the scene witnessed the entire incident and identified the accused," she said. "Yet, we were appalled when Gujjar walked out on bail, and now more suspects have been let off by the court due to insufficient evidence," she added.

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