A Pakistani anti-terrorism court has sentenced to death five men convicted of torturing and burning alive a Christian couple at a brick kiln in 2014. Shehzad Masih and his wife, Shama, a mother of three who was pregnant, were beaten and burned to death in a furnace following rumors that two brick kiln workers had burned pages of the Quran in Kot Radha Kishan, a town in Punjab's Kasur district. A fact-finding team of Pakistan's independent human rights commission found the allegations of blasphemy to be completely false. Judge Chaudhry Muhammad Azam heard the case and on Nov. 23 issued the death sentence to five people who were already in prison. One of the convicts, Hafiz Ishtiaq, is a local prayer leader, who had incited a mob of 400 people to commit the crime. In addition, the judge also imposed a fine of 200,000 rupees (US$ 2,000) each on all five convicts. Another eight men were also sentenced to two years in jail for their involvement in the crime. Although more than 100 people were initially charged with the murder, most of them, including the brick kiln owner, were acquitted as their involvement could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, director of the Pakistani bishops' justice and peace commission expressed his reservations at the verdict. Only five have been punished while the mob of dozens has been released due to benefit of suspicion. The condemned do not include the owner of brick kiln, one of the main culprits. Also they have a right of appeal in a high court and then in the Supreme Court, he told ucanews.com. "Still, justice is seen to have been done for the families of the victims. The confessed murderers deserve punishment. As a principal we stand against death penalties, but we demand their life sentence," he said. The children of the Christian couple are presently sheltered by their maternal grandfather while their education and other needs are being supported by Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation, a Catholic NGO. "Those responsible for this horrific act of violence had to undeniably be brought to justice. Although we do not condone the use of the death penalty, we are however pleased that justice has been served and that the rule of law has been upheld," said Michelle Chaudhry, president of the foundation. Chaudhry recounted how the tragedy deeply impacted the slain couple's eldest son who witnessed the murder of his parents. The child had problems adjusting in school, was silent and aloof for long periods. "By the grace of God, the children are now well settled in schools and we are witnessing them grow personally and academically," she said. The blasphemy law, which can carry the death sentence or life imprisonment, is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan.
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Rights groups say the law is often used to persecute minorities or settle personal scores. Those from religions minorities and several high-profile Muslims have been killed for seeking changes to the law. Former Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, and the federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, were both assassinated in 2011 for speaking out against the controversial law.