A young couple, Shahbaz Maseeh, 26, and his wife Shama Bibi, 24 — parents of four small children and another on the way, was burned alive by a mob in Pakistan for what appears to be trumped up charges of blasphemy.
Relatives of the couple say that the real issue was a monetary dispute involving the couple’s employers.
After a local mullah made a public ruling that the couple was guilty of blasphemy by throwing out pages of a Quran, a mob of about 500 people – included Muslims from neighboring villages — began forming.
Relatives of the couple say the entire family was threatened and everyone began to flee, including children who have still not been accounted for days later. The couple had planned to flee with their young children as well, but were left with no time to do so.
Instead, they barricaded themselves inside a building to escape the mob comprised of their fellow workers at a brick factory where the couple was employed.
"A mob of several dozen attacked the building where they were," said Mushtaq Gill, chief advocate at Pakistani minority rights group Legal Evangelical Association Development (LEAD).
The mob broke down the door and began beating the couple. "They broke their legs so they couldn't run and then threw them in the fire (in a kiln at the brick factory),” Gill said. “Only some bones and hair were found at the site."
Gill added that a rumor had started over the weekend that pages with several verses of the Quran were burned by the wife after being left behind by the wife’s deceased father.
The murder took place in Kot Radha Kishan in the Punjab province, where the majority of Pakistan's close to four million Christians reside.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also said the incident stemmed over a dispute about money. The owners of the brick kiln, who were among those who participated in the mob killing, said the couple owed them money.
The rights group, who sent a team to investigate the incidents, said that the team "did not come across any evidence of desecration of the Holy Quran."
False charges of blasphemy, a crime in Pakistan punishable by death or life imprisonment, are often used as a means of revenge to settle personal disputes or insults.
The HRCP said that this was what happened in this current case. Rumors that the couple had desecrated a Quran were "spread to nearby villages and announcements [were] made through mosque loudspeakers," according to the HRCP.
The group also said that its investigators found out that four policemen were dispatched to the kiln to take the couple into protective custody, but they were also beaten on orders from the kiln’s owners.
According to police, the kiln's owners were among the 44 arrested for the incident with cases filed against 468 others.
Reacting to the murders, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said perpetrators of the brutal crime will be brought to justice.
“The brutal murder of the Christian couple in Kot Radha Krishan is an unacceptable crime,” Nawaz said. “A responsible state cannot tolerate mob rule and public lynching with impunity.”
Nawaz told the Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to show no mercy towards those accused of the crime. “The Pakistani state has to act proactively to protect its minorities from violence and injustice. We must promote religious and ethnic diversity in our society as a virtue,” the prime minister added.
Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director David Griffiths called for proactive protection for at-risk communities. Griffiths also said, “This vicious mob killing is just the latest manifestation of the threat of vigilante violence which anyone can face in Pakistan after a blasphemy accusation.”
Griffiths echoed many Pakistani and international rights activists noting, “The blasphemy laws violate international human rights law and standards and should be reformed as a matter of urgency to provide effective safeguards against their abuse, with a view to their eventual repeal.
"Consistent failure by the government to tackle violence in the name of religion has effectively sent the message that anyone can commit outrageous abuses and excuse them as defense of religious sentiments.”
Responding to the decision of Punjab’s Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to form a three-member committee to expedite the investigation of this case as well as to increase security at Christian neighborhoods in the province, Griffiths said, “The local government’s response is encouraging, but it remains to be seen what comes of the investigation. The climate of impunity around violence against religious minorities in Pakistan is pervasive, and it is all too rare that those behind attacks are held to account.”
One such case of that of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman and mother of five, who was sentenced to death on blasphemy charges stemming from a dispute with Muslim women with whom she worked over a glass of water.
A Pakistani appeals court recently upheld the sentence of death by hanging for Bibi who was accused of making derogatory statement’s about Mohammed, the founder of Islam.
Bibi was convicted in 2010 under Pakistan’s amorphous blasphemy laws and has been in prison ever since the original ruling. She was targeted by Muslim women in her village and pressured several times to convert to Islam. When she refused, the villagers provoked a confrontation, accusing her of blasphemy.