Pakistan Sentences Five To Death Over Christian Couple's Killing

A Pakistani antiterrorism court has sentenced five people to death in connection with the killing of a Christian couple by a mob after they were falsely accused of blasphemy.

The couple, Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi, were beaten and then set on fire by an angry mob at a brick kiln in Punjab Province in 2014.

The rulings represent a rare victory for the much-maligned Christian community in Pakistan, where the authorities have previously been hesitant to clamp down on mob violence for fear of angering powerful Islamist groups.

The antiterrorism court in Lahore on November 23 also sentenced eight other people to two years in prison for their part in the killing. The court also acquitted 93 suspects in the case.

"The five people awarded the death sentence were involved in dragging, beating, and burning the couple, while the other eight played a supportive role, according to the judgement," said Riaz Anjum, the lawyer representing the couple's family.

It was not clear when the death sentences would be carried out.

Blasphemy Laws Under Fire

The brutal, deadly attack on the couple prompted outrage in Pakistan, shedding light on the plight of Christians, who make up less than 2 percent of the conservative Islamic country's population of 170 million.

The killings also triggered international criticism of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which were introduced in the 1980s.

Blasphemy is legally punishable by death in Pakistan, where even unproven accusations can prompt mob violence.

Rights activists have urged Pakistan to repeal the legislation, arguing that it's commonly used to settle personal disputes, often against Christians.

Masih and Bibi were falsely accused by the mob of desecrating the Koran by throwing away pages of the Islamic holy book along with the trash.

An angry mob of hundreds of people set upon the couple near the town of Kot Radha Kishan in Punjab, beating them and then throwing their bodies into a brick kiln.

After the attack, it emerged that the couple had been falsely accused.

Shahzad's father, a faith healer who used pages with inscriptions in many languages for his work, had died shortly before the incident. The family was burning documents that belonged to him.

It is unclear whether they were still alive when tossed into the kiln.

Mob Justice

At least 1,481 people in Pakistan were charged for blasphemy between 1987 and 2015, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace.

At least nine people accused of blasphemy were given death sentences, and another three received life imprisonment between 2010 and 2015.

In August, the U.S. State Department released a report raising concerns over laws against blasphemy in Pakistan.

The laws "have often been used as justification for mob justice," the report said.

Christians have regularly accused the government of discrimination and of failing to protect them against attacks.

In March, a Pakistani Taliban splinter group claimed responsibility for a bombing in a Christian neighborhood in the eastern city of Lahore that left more than 70 people dead and around 300 wounded.

With reporting by Dawn, AFP, and Geo TV