A young Pakistani Christian couple were beaten by a mob and incinerated in eastern Punjab last week after being accused of ‘blasphemy’.
Shahzad and Shamma were both in their mid-twenties. They lived in the Christian village of Clarkabad, before moving to Chak 59 village in search of work. They leave behind three children aged 18 months, 4 years and 6 years old.
Upon moving to Chak 59, the couple found work at a brick kiln where their employer, Gujjar was also their landlord. Gujjar gave the couple a fee to work for him, which they then had to pay back as rent (this is a common method used to trap people in bonded slavery as exorbitant interest is often added on).
When Shahzad’s father died in October, Shamma cleared out her father in law’s belongings.
Shahzad’s father practiced black magic, and upon finding his amulets, Shamma burned them, along with other occult material. She threw the ashes on a rubbish pile outside their house. A Muslim co-worker saw the half burnt paper fragments and accused her of burning the Koran and therefore of committing blasphemy.
The whole family approached Gujjar about the issue because tension was so high in the village. Gujjar told them not to worry, that nothing would happen, and that he would take care of it. But he also told his accountant not to let the couple leave the village without paying back their ‘bond money’. According to some reports, this accountant had raped Shamma a few days earlier.
That night the couple slept in a relative’s house for safety. Muslim neighbours told the local police about the alleged blasphemy and warned that an attack on the couple was likely.
The couple returned to their house on the morning of Tuesday 4th November to get ready for work, but already a small mob was starting to form. The couple and other relatives took refuge at another family member’s house. The Christian men and boys fled, leaving the women and girls locked in their quarters for safety.
The family expected the males to become the mob’s target, but Shamma was dragged out of the house holding her one year old son. The mob snatched the child and threw him to the floor. A brick kiln guard managed to rescue Shamma and took her to the nearby kiln office. He locked Shamma inside in order to protect her.
The guard then found Shahzad and asked him to join his wife in the locked room. The guard promised he would the family out once the mob dispersed.
While this was happening, mosques in the surrounding villages broadcasted the alleged ‘blasphemy’ charge. After this, hundreds, some say thousands, of men poured into the village on tractors and trailers, armed with axes, clubs and other weapons.
The mob demanded that the kiln manager disclose the couple’s whereabouts. It’s not known whether or not he consented.
The mob broke down the outer door to the room where the couple were hiding. Unable to break the metal inner door, they instead they smashed the roof, opened the door from the inside and dragged the couple outside.
The couple were beaten with axes and clubs. Their limbs were broken. The couple were then stripped and tied to a tractor. They were dragged along a rough road. The mob kept beating them.
Family members who witnessed the scene weren’t sure if the couple had survived this initial attack. Some say Shamma had died but Shahzad was still alive when the mob poured petrol from a tractor over the bodies and threw them into the brick kiln.
At this point, all of the surviving relatives fled to Clarkabad and other places of refuge. These relatives say that a police van had been present all through the attack, but even though some people begged the police to fire in the air to disperse the mob (none of whom had guns), they refused.
Large numbers of police arrived later and arrested around 40 people, including Gujjar, the kiln owner. The police say he had urged the local mosque’s prayer leader to declare the couple guilty.
Data provided by National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) shows a total of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmedis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been accused under various clauses of the blasphemy law since 1987.
The police have so far denied the family their right under law to register the official case FIR (First Information Report) and instead have registered it themselves. They have incorrectly named the couple Sajid and Saima within the FIR, in what many believe is an attempt to confuse international media.
Shama’s father is protesting this. He has long been a leader of the bonded labourers (slaves) and believes it is a tactic used to oppress the powerless. Relatives who witnessed the entire incident are conspicuously absent from the report. The authorities also denied the victims a proper Christian burial. A Christian funeral had been agreed for the next day, but at midnight the authorities took the remains and buried them secretly. If a public funeral was held the Christian community would have protested on mass, and this could have attracted media attention.
There are fears that the illegal tactics concerning the FIR demonstrate that the authorities are planning to protect the culprits and implement a cover-up. However, the federal government has appointed the Christian minister for Ports and Shipping, Kamran Michael, to co-ordinate the case, saying the state has taken on the complainant’s demand to provide a deterrence against future similar events. The government has also said that it is taking this course of action so that the family could not be pressured and bullied into a compromised agreement.
The British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) has initiated a fund for the family of Shahzad and Shama. The BPCA desires to free them from their bonded labour status and will work towards providing a new safer environment for this family, that has suffered the loss of loved ones in a brutal and savage manner. This family have been left with serious emotional and psychological scarring and are receiving counselling. Shama and Shahzad leave behind three orphaned children: A son Sulman (6 yrs) and two daughters Sonia (4 yrs) and Poonam (18 months), who are being cared for by Shahzad’s family.
The above report is adapted from a British Pakistani Christian Association (BCPA) press release.