The unpaved dusty streets of Chak 59, a poor neighbourhood with a few hundred houses near the old town of Kot Radha Kishan, wear a deserted look. This is also true of other small villages nearby.
According to the police, on Tuesday last, several hundred charged people of Chak 59 and nearby villages commuting on trolleys and motorbikes stormed a brick kiln located about a kilometre away from Chak 59. They forcefully took out a young Christian couple, Shahzad Masih and his wife Shama Masih, from a locked room at the kiln, furiously beat them with bricks, sticks, clubs and hands and finally dragged them to the top of a blazing brick oven and watched them burn to ashes in a few minutes.
The police says these people alleged the couple had desecrated pages of Holy Quran a few days ago which remains officially unconfirmed.
A few policemen and a local reporter of a television channel witnessed the barbaric act of violence by the religiously-charged mob. They dared not move ahead after some of them injured a policeman and broke the reporter’s camera who was trying to record this shocking incident.
The village is deserted because of continuous police raids to identify and arrest the people involved in this brutal act.
“There were up to 1,000-1200 people gathered after hearing public announcements from nearby mosques to teach lesson to that alleged blaspheming couple. There is no proof yet and the investigations are under way,” says Jawwad Qamar, district police officer, while talking to TNS. “More than 600 people have been nominated in the FIR and more than fifty people have been arrested, including some clerics and owner of the kiln for their alleged connivance. The attackers will be charged for terrorism and killing the couple.”
The whitewashed small room with the broken door and roof clearly tells the horrible story of that wretched couple; the couple’s shoes still lying in the room as if left behind after they were dragged out by the mob.
“The couple had been working at this kiln for almost two decades — along with their 15 other family members. Somebody alleged that the couple, after the death of Shahzad’s father who used to practice ‘black magic’ as an Aamil till a few days ago, cleaned his room and disposed of his belongings including some papers in the street. A local vendor allegedly found some charred Quranic pages in the streets and the issue sparked after that,” says Qamar.
Meanwhile, there was an ongoing dispute between the brick kiln owner Yousaf Gujjar and the family regarding some advance payments and delayed work “as some of the family members used to go to the local hospital where our father Nazar Masih was getting treatment. He died a few days ago,” says Iqbal Masih, 60, the elder son of the family who also works at the same kiln.
The bhatta management including the owner’s munshi and chowkidar locked the couple on November 4, some hours earlier before the attackers came, as if they would run away without paying the advance money,” he says. “They had just disposed of some record of their father which did not contain any blasphemous material,” he claims. Some of the Muslim workers at the kiln were discriminating against them, he says.
“We want justice. We cannot forget the way they brutally killed our brother and his wife and mercilessly threw their one-and-a-half-year old daughter, who was also locked with them in the room,” Iqbal Masih says, adding, “I hid myself in the quarter quietly watching the barbaric killing of my brother and his wife.”
He alleges the kiln owner of collaborating with the local clerics those incited people for the attack.
“There is no need for evidence of this attack. It was quite open,” the DPO says. He says the matter of advance payment dispute is also under investigation and a high level committee has been set up by the chief minister and would present a report soon.
In Pakistan, the kiln workers work as bonded labour, getting advance money for several months and work hard as slaves at these places. The family of the victims had been working on the kiln for the past several years. They left a local Christian neighbourhood, Clarkabad, and settled in the village where there was a kiln in order to find work.
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Desecration of the Holy Quran is part of the harsh blasphemy laws in Pakistan. In many cases, these blasphemy laws are used as a tool to settle personal scores, enmities, grab properties etc. Minority Christian community alleges these laws are used to persecute them in the name of religion in many cases.
A few weeks back, an official jail guard shot injured a prisoner Muhammad Asghar, sentenced to death under blasphemy laws, in the jail. He was reportedly influenced by the killer of governor Salmaan Taseer. The guard took a pistol with him into the prison against the law and went straight to the barrack where Asghar was kept and opened fire on him.
A delegation of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also visited the village and the kiln a few days back. “We have found no evidence of desecration of the Holy Quran. The allegation came up after the dispute over advance money between the owner and the family,” Mahboob Ahmed Khan, who led the fact-finding team, tells TNS. He says the involvement of those who incited the locals to attack the couple merely on hearsay is also very clear. The First Information Report (FIR) of the case, lodged by the police, also does not indicate any evidence of desecrating the pages of the Holy Quran.
Increasing intolerance in society over matters religious is becoming a matter of grave concern while the state seems oblivious, indifferent or worse still complicit. Usually, such cases end up with announcement of reasonable financial compensation leaving the culprits to be handled by a faulty and overburdened criminal justice system and the issue remains unsettled.
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif visited the village and the kiln and announced Rupees five million and 10-acre piece of land for the grieved children with his rhetoric of “severest punishment to the culprits.”
Last Wednesday, in Gujrat, a mid-rank police officer Assistant Sub Inspector Faraz Naveed killed a Shia person, detained for allegedly uttering ‘blasphemous’ remarks against certain companions of Prophet Muhammad. Police received call from a local hotel in Gujrat and apprehended a Malang Tufail Haider and kept him in the lockup. “During the interrogation, the person allegedly continued to utter similar remarks and also abused the policemen,” a local police officer said. “He did not seem to be in his senses.” However, the officer got infuriated and late night took him to his office in the police station and axed him from neck.
In a number of incidents, violent and infuriated mobs incited by local clerics through announcements from mosques have taken the law in their hand and tortured the accused persons or burnt their properties. In 2013, a violent mob of several hundred had burnt 173 houses of Joseph colony, a Christian neighbourhood, after a Christian resident Sawan Masih was accused of uttering derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif taking strict notice of the incident has termed the act of mob “unforgivable” and against the spirit of Islam. But whether the government sets an example this time to stop this mob lynching is yet to be seen.