Relatives pray at the site where Shahzad Masih and his wife Shama Bibi were killed.

An Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) in Lahore, Pakistan, on Saturday (24 March) acquitted 20 men suspected of involvement in the murder of a Christian couple burnt alive at the kiln where they worked in November 2014 – after it was alleged that they had set fire to some pages from a Quran.

Previously, in April 2016, the ATC allowed the kiln’s owner, Yousuf Gujjar, to walk free. The same court in November 2016 sentenced five men to death and jailed another eight men for two years.

Yasmeen Bibi and Mukhtar Masih, sister and father of murdered Shama Masih in November 2014. (Photo: Asif Aqeel / World Watch Monitor)
Yasmeen Bibi and Mukhtar Masih, sister and father of murdered Shama Masih in November 2014. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

A mob of as many as 600 people beat to near-death Shahzad Masih, 26, and his five-months-pregnant wife Shama Bibi, 24, for their “blasphemous” act on 4 November 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.

The First Information Report lodged with the police named 52 people who were directly involved and were 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”.

The Pakistani state itself became the complainant in this case – a first in Pakistani history for a blasphemy case, as Christian federal minister Kamran Michael told local media. The government appointed Michael as the focal person in the case.

Another Christian parliamentarian, Minister for Human Rights Khalil Tahir Sindhu, had hailed the arrest of Gujjar and his son-in-law – for their part in “egging on a prayer leader to declare Shama and Sajjad guilty of blasphemy from the loudspeaker of a mosque”.

However, as with Gujjar’s release, the acquittal of the 20 is the latest setback for Pakistan’s Christian minority and their fight against the country’s blasphemy laws, which are used disproportionately against religious minorities: Pakistani Christians make up only 1.5 per cent of the total population, but over a quarter (187) of the 702 blasphemy cases registered between 1990 and 2014 were against Christians.

Pakistan’s Senate recommended earlier this month that those who falsely accuse someone of blasphemy receive the same punishment as those convicted of blasphemy.

But last year Pakistan’s Federal Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, Sardar Muhammad Yousuf, said: “The law cannot be revoked. It’s there to stay, as it has a noble aim, to protect beliefs and religious personalities of all faiths, not just Islam.”