A Pakistani court has granted bail to the lead suspect in the brutal 2014 killings of a young Christian couple, burned alive in a brick kiln where they worked as bonded labourers, itself illegal in Pakistan.

National outrage over their deaths meant the case had moved to Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court and the State itself became the prosecution claimant against the double-killing – both unprecedented moves. Yet the Anti-Terrorism Court allowed the kiln’s owner, Yousuf Gujjar, to walk free on 16 April.

Though the case against Gujjar and dozens of co-defendants remains open, the move recalls other cases in which suspects accused of attacking Christians have never been convicted of a crime.

A mob beat to near-death Shahzad Masih, 26, and his pregnant wife, Shama Bibi, 24, in November 2014 after rumours arose that, two days before, she had burned pages of the Qur’an, a crime against Pakistan’s “blasphemy” law that carries a mandatory lifetime prison sentence.

They are survived by four children.

Masih’s sister-in-law, Parveen Bibi, had told World Watch Monitor at the time that Shama was unable to read and could not know what she was burning as she tossed trash upon a fire. She also said Shahzad Masih and his five brothers, who had all worked for many years at Gujjar’s brick kiln, went to Gujjar to resolve the “blasphemy” charge after village tensions grew.

“Gujjar on the one hand assured us that nothing would happen, and on the other hand asked his accountant not to let Shahzad and Shama flee the village without paying back their bond money,” she said.

By 3 Nov., some Muslim neighbours had informed the police of the alleged desecration and warned of a possible attack on the Christian couple.

The police First Information Report 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 kilometres from Lahore, the capital of Punjab province. The report specifically named 52 suspects, and put Gujjar, the owner of the brick kiln, at the top of that list.

Directly after the killings, Punjab Minister for Human Rights Khalil Tahir Sindhu said the police investigation had 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.”

The government swiftly appointed Senator Kamran Michael, probably Pakistan’s leading Christian politician and the Ports and Shipping Minister, as the investigation’s “focal person.”

“This is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the state will be the plaintiff in a case involving murder due to alleged blasphemy,” he told the media at the time. News reports indicated the Prime Minister of Pakistan had told him to ensure that the case “set a precedent so that no one would dare repeat such a barbaric act again.”

Aneeqa Maria, co-ordinator of The Voice Society, an NGO that works for the rights of minority Christians and which represented the family in court, told World Watch Monitor that Gujjar’s release was the first major direction by the court, and points to the release of other suspects.

Convictions for mob attacks on Christians are rare. In August 2009 in Gojra in northeast Pakistan, seven Christians were burned to death while more than 100 houses were looted, ransacked and burned. Four years later, thousands of angry Muslims rampaged through Joseph Colony in Lahore, torching more than 100 Christian homes. Savan Masih, a Christian whose alleged remarks speaking ill of the Prophet of Islam provoked the violence, sits on death row. No-one has been convicted for burning Joseph Colony.

Echoes of those cases can be heard in the police report about the Christian couple burned in the kiln. The number of suspects named in the original FIR was 52; later investigations raised this to 140. “Out of 140 nominated accused, 81 have been arrested, while 59 are still at large as the Police/Investigating Agency has not been able to apprehend them,” it said.

“The suspect mentioned at number one in the list is released, while the police haven’t been able to arrest several other suspects,” noted Maria. “This state of affairs in the Police Department speaks volumes about their inefficiency and lack of interest in pursuing the case vigilantly.”

The Supreme Court of Pakistan in late November 2014 ordered the state of Punjab to produce its own report about the murders. After reviewing the report, the court ordered five police present at the kiln to be disciplined, for failing to stop the crowd by firing warning shots into the air.

In the police First Information Report, Assistant Sub-Inspector Muhammad Ali specifically named Yousuf Gujjar. When he submitted his statement as a prosecution witness in January, he did not mention Gujjar at all.

“The other two police constables, Ahmad Din and Muhammad Saleem, also refused to identify Yousuf Gujjar, though they claimed that he had played a role in the burning of the couple,” Maria said.

The police haven’t been the only ones to present inconsistent testimony, however. Maria said two brothers, two nephews and a cousin to Shahzad Masih each told the court that Gujjar was not present at the crime scene.

Riaz Anjum, a Christian lawyer who also represented the family on behalf of The Voice Society, told World Watch Monitor that Yousuf Gujjar had applied for bail in October, but withdrew his request after other defendants were denied their own bail requests.

“Now things have dramatically changed,” Anjum said, “after the deceased man’s own brothers have given statements and also state witnesses have backed off as well.”

The police had earlier informed the Supreme Court that three clerics – Mohammad Hussain, Noorul Hassan and Arshad Baloch – had been accused of inciting people through hate speech from the mosque loudspeakers. Only Mohammad Hussain has been arrested.

Post-mortem reports submitted to the Supreme Court said the couple was still alive when thrown into the kiln. They were unable to flee the mob because Gujjar refused to let them leave without re-paying their bonded loan – a traditional system still used to enslave labourers across India and Pakistan, although officially illegal in Pakistan.

The couple had four children – Solomon (9), Zeeshan (6) (given to an uncle for adoption as they could not keep him at the time), Sonia (6) and Poonam (3).