Court in Pakistan Acquits 20 Muslims Suspected in Brick-Kiln Killing of Christian Couple

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Separately, Christian on death row wins appeal.By Our Pakistan Correspondent
 Composite of Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi. (Morning Star News photo courtesy of family)LAHOREPakistanMarch 25, 2018 (Morning Star News) – An anti-terrorism court in Lahore, Pakistan on Saturday (March 24) acquitted 20 Muslims suspected of involvement in the killing and burning in a brick kiln of a Christian couple in 2014, sources said.

A frenzied Muslim mob of hundreds, incited by announcements made over a mosque loudspeaker, tortured and killed Shahzad Masih, 26, and 24-year-old Shama Masih in November 2014 after they were accused of blasphemy in Punjab’s Kot Radha Kishan area. In 2016 five Muslims were sentenced to death for the killing and eight others were sentenced to two years in prison for their involvement, but Christians believe Saturday’s verdict dashes hopes of complete justice for the family of the slain brick-kiln workers.

The mob tore the clothes off the couple, struck them, broke their legs, dragged them behind a tractor and threw them into the burning furnace of a brick kiln – even though Shama Masih, a pregnant mother of four, was illiterate and could not have known even if koranic verses were among debris that she had burned. Under Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy statutes, intent must be shown for a conviction of desecrating the Koran.

Attorney Aneeqa Maria, who is representing Shama Masih’s family, said the court acquitted the 20 men on Saturday (March 24), giving them the benefit of the doubt. She said the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) had already granted bail to the lead suspect, Yousaf Gujjar, in April 2016, raising doubts about the Punjab government’s intention to deliver 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 that of 140 suspects named, police had been able to arrest 81, while 59 were still absconding.

The police First Information Report (FIR) filed at the time said between 500 and 600 people were in the mob that burned the couple in Chak 59 village, Kot Radha Kishan, Kasur, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Lahore.

Gujjar’s name was on top of the list of 52 suspects that police believed were directly responsible for the incident. The investigation at that time found Gujjar and his son “guilty of egging on a prayer leader to declare Shama and Shahzad guilty of blasphemy from the loudspeaker of a mosque.”

Five relatives of Shahzad Masih, including his two brothers, however, told the ATC that Gujjar was not present at the crime scene. A police official who is the complainant in the case also retracted his statement in court regarding Gujjar’s presence at the time of the incident. Shama’s family insists that Gujjar had played a major role in the lynching, as he had forcibly stopped the couple from leaving the kiln since they owed him money.

Senior Supreme Court Advocate Saiful Malook told Morning Star News that the acquittals showed that police had intentionally built a weak case.

“This case could have been a watershed moment for the Pakistani government to regain confidence of its minorities and the international community regarding concerns over the violence perpetrated in the name of blasphemy, however the developments in the case are very disappointing,” he told Morning Star News.

Malook, who is pleading the appeal in the Supreme Court of Christian mother Aasiya Noreen (commonly known as Asia Bibi) against her death sentence under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, said that violence against minority communities, particularly Christians, cannot be contained unless the government fulfills its responsibility completely.

“The government made an unprecedented move by becoming complainant in the case,” he said. “It should have ensured that the case was watertight so that no accused would be able to escape justice, however grant of bail to the lead suspect and acquittals of several others shows the government lacked the commitment to follow the case in the first place.”

The gruesome incident prompted the Pakistani government itself to become the claimant against the double murder, the first such move by the government in a blasphemy case, but it slowly began to lose interest in the case, attorney Maria said.

In the November 2016 convictions, the ATC also directed the convicts – Muslim cleric Hafiz Ishtiaq, Mehdi Khan, Riaz Kumboh, Irfan Shakoor and Muhammad Hanif – to pay 100,000 rupees (about US$1,000) each as compensation to the heirs of the victims.

The eight convicted of aiding and abetting the crime are Muhammad Hussain, Noorul Hasan, Muhammad Arsalan, Muhammad Haris, Muhammad Muneer, Muhammad Ramazan, Irfan and Hafiz Shahid.

Christian on Death Row Acquitted
Separately, a Christian sentenced to death in a blasphemy case in Gujranwala two years ago was acquitted by the Lahore High Court on March 13.

Attorney Riaz Anjum told Morning Star News that a division bench of the high court comprising Justices Mazahar Ali Naqvi and Mushtaq Ahmad had ordered Anjum Naz Sindhu’s release as the prosecution had failed to produce evidence in support of its allegations that his client had blasphemed.

“The judges pointed out irregularities in the police investigation and also the fact that there was no proof to suggest that Sindhu had engaged in any religious discussion with the co-accused,” said the lawyer.

Anjum said that in its verdict, the court had also pointed out the absence of a voice recognition report to prove that the alleged blasphemous remarks were made by Sindhu.

“Although the police had obtained a transcribed form of the alleged blasphemous conversation from the forensic laboratory, they could not authenticate the voices on the recording,” he said, adding that the judges had termed it “a case of no evidence.”

Sindhu, a 65-year-old Catholic owner of a prominent chain of schools in Gujranwala, was sentenced to death on June 27, 2016, following conviction for blasphemy – as were the two men convicted of blackmailing him. Javed Naz, a Christian, and Naz’s Muslim friend Jaffar Ali, were also sentenced to death for concealing or otherwise handling a recording of remarks that allegedly blasphemed Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Naz and Ali had told police that Sindhu had committed blasphemy during a speech at Locus Science School last year, which Naz said he recorded on his cell phone, according to the FIR.

Sindhu’s brother, Asif Sindhu, had previously told Morning Star News that Naz, who worked at one of the schools that Anjum Sindhu owned, used the blasphemy law to take vengeance because Sindhu had fired Naz from the school for leaking examination papers.

“Later Naz, with the help of his friend Jaffar Ali, started blackmailing my brother and started demanding extortion by claiming that they had an audio recording in which he had committed blasphemy,” Asif Sindhu said. “They uttered blasphemous words in my brother’s voice to get revenge for taking action against Javed Naz and later started demanding extortion.”

As any unsubstantiated blasphemy accusation can land an accused person in jail for months while awaiting trial under Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy statutes, Anjum Sindhu on May 15, 2015 paid 20,000 rupees (US$190) in extortion money to the two men, who then demanded another 50,000 rupees (US$475) from him.

Attorney Arif Goraya, who represented Sindhu during the trial, had pointed out several irregularities in the police investigation during his arguments in court.

“During the proceedings, I repeatedly brought to the court’s notice that there is no direct evidence against my client, and that there are several gaps in the investigation that make the entire process suspicious,” he said.

Goraya had said that the forensic laboratory report notified the court that the lab lacked the equipment to make a 100 percent match of the voice on the audio clip with that of Sindhu. The court thus made its ruling largely on the basis of a transcript obtained from the audio recording, which does not directly incriminate Sindhu, the attorney said.

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