An Anti-Terrorism Court in Lahore, Pakistan yesterday (23 Nov.) sentenced five men to death for the murder of a Christian couple who were burned alive in November 2014 for setting fire to some pages from a Qur’an.

A mob of about 600 people beat to near-death Shahzad Masih, 26, and his five-months-pregnant wife Shama Bibi, 24, for their “blasphemous” act on 4 Nov. 2014, in a village 60 kilometres from Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab region. The couple were then thrown into the large kiln where they worked as bonded labourers.

National outrage over their deaths saw the case moved to the Anti-Terrorism Court and the State become the prosecution claimant.

Yesterday, Judge Chaudhry Muhammad Azam imposed a fine of Rs 200,000 (US$2,000) to each of the five killers – Mehdi Khan, Riaz Kambo, Irfan Shakoor, Muhammad Hanif, and Hafiz Ishtiaq – who were convicted of inciting violence and of throwing the couple into the kiln.

Another eight men – Muhammad Hussain, Noorul Hasan, Muhammad Arsalan, Muhammad Haris, Muhammad Muneer, Muhammad Ramazan, Irfan and Hafiz Shahid – were jailed for two years and fined.

More than 50 people were originally charged under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act for “the use or threat of action … to coerce and intimidate or overawe the Government or the public … or create a sense of fear or insecurity in society”.

“Although several of the suspects were acquitted after statements by Shahzad’s brothers, still five have received the punishment of death, which is an extraordinary step by the court,” said Riaz Anjum from the Voice Society, which represented the murdered woman’s father, Mukhtar Masih, in court.

Timeline of events

On 2 Nov. 2014, the couple were accused of the “blasphemy” of burning some pages from a Qur’an. Parveen Bibi, the wife of Masih’s eldest brother, explained that Masih’s late father, Nazar, “used to do black magic” in which he used amulets and other documents that she said might have contained Qur’anic verses. That day, Shama Bibi had burned the pages and thrown the ashes onto a garbage heap outside their quarters.

Parveen Bibi told World Watch Monitor that her sister had never meant any disrespect to Islam, as she was illiterate and had no idea what the amulets contained. But some passers-by recognised the text on the partially burned pages and the situation quickly escalated.

Parveen Bibi said that Masih and his five brothers went to the kiln’s owner, Yousuf Gujjar, for whom they had worked for many years, to resolve the matter. She said that Gujjar had assured them that nothing would happen, but that because they owed him money, they could not leave the village.

Masih and Bibi were bonded labourers. This is a traditional method still used to enslave labourers across India and Pakistan, although officially illegal in Pakistan. The practice is recognised by the UN as a form of “modern slavery”. (See below)

Two days later, at around 6am, a mob beat the couple and threw them into the kiln. A few policemen were present at the scene, but failed to ward off the mob. In December 2014, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered action to be taken against them.

The post-mortem report submitted to the Supreme Court in December 2014 stated that the couple were still alive when they were thrown into the kiln. In April this year, Yousuf Gujjar was bailed. He has now been acquitted.

Meanwhile, the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) reports that “the surviving children and grandfather, Mukhtar Masih, who is guardian for Suleman, Sonia and Poonam [the couple’s children] have been receiving death threats and abuse. Mr. Masih has asked for the BPCA to relocate them somewhere safer”.

Enslaved Christians at brick kilns in Pakistan

Brick kiln labourers spend their lives in very harsh working conditions. The BBC reports that apart from hard labour, many of them are injured by fire and sometimes even lose their lives. No medical treatments are available to them from kiln owners or the government as they are not considered government employees, who get social security.

Kiln workers are often supposed to live in quarters on the kiln site, where hygienic conditions are very poor. Children are either not allowed to go to school or parents cannot afford to send their children to school. Salaries are often so meagre that labourers can barely survive. Kiln owners put all family members to work, including women and children. Sexual exploitation of female workers is common and in many cases male members of the family feel they cannot react against this.

Most brick kiln workers are virtually made slaves through the paishagee system in which an amount of money is given as an advance, and the employee cannot leave until he returns that money. Often kiln owners keep increasing the amount of the loan or bond by charging exorbitant interest rates and by ‘fudging’ the numbers. With meagre salaries, bonded labourers remain enslaved, sometimes for generations. Any attempt to escape from the kiln results in violence, humiliation, increased debt and even a criminal case.

The 1992 Bonded Labour System Abolition Act orders that “No person shall [give] an advance” and that “every obligation of a bonded labourer to repay any bonded debt … shall stand extinguished.” However, the practice of giving monetary advances continues.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says there are three to eight million bonded labourers in Pakistan. A Human Rights Watch report, Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Pakistan, states: “Relative to their percentage of the total population, a high proportion of bonded brick-kiln workers in Punjab are Christians.”