Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif weighed in on the brutal mob murder Tuesday of a young Christian couple accused of blasphemy, calling it a “public lynching” and saying the law should pursue and punish those responsible.
Charges of blasphemy in Pakistan are highly sensitive, and have at times led to vigilante justice. Anti-blasphemy laws can carry the death penalty.
The Christian couple were accused by fellow laborers Tuesday of desecrating a Quran, according to early reports. Members of a mob that grew to 500 or more people marched into their home, grabbed them, and burned them alive in a nearby industrial kiln where they worked in Kot Radha Kishan, a town south of Lahore in the Punjab.
A human rights investigative team, however, now says the original dispute was over money, but that calls went out on mosque loudspeakers in nearby villages accusing them of blasphemy and burning a Quran in the kiln.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan issued a statement saying their team on the ground "did not come across any evidence of desecration of the Holy Quran.”
The couple were identified by media, police, and the commission as Shahbaz Maseeh and his wife, Shama Bibi, both in their twenties. They had three children, and Mrs. Bibi was pregnant according to the commission.
Mr. Sharif said Wednesday that, "A responsible state cannot tolerate mob rule and public lynching with impunity…. I have directed the Punjab chief minister to show no mercy and the law should take its course to punish those who are responsible for this act.”
The case is quickly proving a sensitive one for Sharif following the decision late in October by a high court to move forward with the death penalty of Asia Bibi, who was found guilty several years ago under the anti-blasphemy law for making negative comments to her neighbors about the Koran while at a local water well. In 2011, the governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, who took up her case and called for reforms to the laws, was assassinated.
Reuters' report from a local journalist who did not want to be named indicated that police at first did not respond to the Kot Radha Kishan case, and then did not intervene once the mob took over:
"Police did not take it seriously. Later they sent five officers to the spot,’ the journalist said. ‘The couple was thrashed and burnt in their presence."
The New York Times reports that the owner of the kiln, Yousaf Gujjar, has been arrested along with several Muslim clerics who are expected to be charged with inciting the murder of the couple, and offers further context on how blasphemy is often used to settle local scores:
Police officials said that 39 out of the nearly 50 people who had been arrested in the case were brought before an antiterrorism court Wednesday, and permission was sought from the court to interrogate them.
Though the police have not provided a motive, blasphemy allegations are often used to settle personal scores and vendettas, rights groups say. In recent years, allegations of blasphemy, which is a crime punishable by death or life in prison, have led to instances of violence and vigilante justice.
The Monitor reported in October, regarding the Bibi case, that Pakistan is under an semi-official moratorium on the death penalty. The passions raised by blasphemy accusations however at one point were enough to bring a series of high level assassinations of officials:
Bibi’s name and case have since become nearly synonymous with a sensitive national debate over blasphemy laws, which are not clearly defined and were further criminalized under the military dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. The laws can carry the death penalty, though in Pakistan since 2008 there has been an unofficial moratorium on the death sentence and only one person has been executed.
The death sentence came during a period of extreme attacks on Christians and minorities. In 2010 the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, visited Bibi in jail and was shortly after shot dead in Islamabad by his guard, who assumed that Mr. Taseer opposed the blasphemy law and supported Bibi.