By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
LAHORE, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Pakistan’s Anti Terrorism Court (ATC) is hearing witnesses after a key suspect in the lynching death of Christian couple Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi was released on bail, a rights official told BosNewsLife.
Yousaf Gujjar, who was publicly named as the primary suspect in the massive attack by Muslims, was freed this week amid divisions among police investigators over his role in the murders, Christian trial observers said.
However, “I am requested by the brother of [late] Shahzad to appear in the Anti-Terrorist Court in the eastern city of] Lahore” Wednesday, April 20, “because the case is fixed for cross-examination of witnesses,” confirmed Sardar Mushtaq Gill, national director of advocacy group Legal Evangelical Association Development (LEAD).
Gill told BosNewsLife that on November 4, 2014 a “mob of around 1600 burned Shahzad and Shamma alive in a brick kiln owned by Yousaf Gujjar” in Kot Radha Kishan town, some 64 kilometers (40 miles) southwest of Lahore.
Masih, 26, and his five months-pregnant wife Bibi, 24, had been working there as bonded labourers, an officially illegal but widespread practise in Pakistan, according to investigators. Gill said the two Christians, who were tortured before being thrown into a furnace, had been accused of blasphemy against Islam “which incited a horrific end to their lives.”
TRYING TO ESCAPE
Activists said the Christians were wrongly accused of deliberately burning pages of the Koran, viewed as a holy book by Muslims, and have suggested they were killed because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Gill has told BosNewsLife the Koran pages were apparently put there accidentally by Shama Bibi while she collected personal belongings of her diseased father-in-law.
After discovering the burned verses, the kiln manager allegedly forced the Christians to stay indoors till they “pay off their debts,” BosNewsLife reported at the time.
Following an announcement about the incident in regional mosques, an angry Muslim mob entered the room and dragged out the couple, Gill explained. “They started beating them with clubs and fractured their legs. The mob later dragged the couple towards the kiln’s furnace and burnt them while they were still alive.”
The LEAD leader earlier told BosNewsLife that the married couple had planned to flee with their three young children
Christians have expressed concern that the key suspect has now been released on bail. A judge has previously criticized alleged police negligence during the lynching.
An assistant inspector of the police in the Kasur area reportedly told a court that “if it were not for this individual, the accident would never have happened”.
Yet police officer Asi Mohammad Ali, who originally initiated legal action against Gujjar and three other suspects, later refused to indicate him as “one of the major culprits”, trial observers said.
During the investigation at least 106 people have reportedly been indicted in the case, but Christian rights activists and family members appear concerned about the outcome of the trial in heavily Islamic Pakistan.
It has underscored concerns over blasphemy legislation in Pakistan, where several Christians have been killed or remain detained on what critics view as trumped-up charges. Among those held is longtime prisoner Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, who faces execution by hanging for alleged blasphemy, charges she strongly denies.