Kot Radha Kishan - Elite commandoes are patrolling the streets of four small towns where almost all the male villagers have vanished as the police launched a massive crackdown after brutal killing of a Christian couple in Lahore’s Kot Radha Kishan suburb.

Twenty-eight-year old Shahzad Masih and his five-month-pregnant wife Shama Masih, 24, were brutally tortured by an enraged mob before they were set ablaze at a brick kiln near Chak No 59 early Tuesday.

“The entire episode took place in the presence of policemen and on the orders of a local Panchayat comprising notables and clerics of the area,” said Javed Shahbaz, a close relative of the deceased couple.

Only five policemen reached the spot to handle hundreds of people as the Panchayat sat down to decide the fate of the couple early Tuesday. Soon after the pre-dawn prayers on Tuesday, the prayer leader at the mosque of Chak No 59 switched on the loudspeaker and made incendiary announcement, urging all the male members of the village to gather at a brick kiln in the area.

“O villagers, I have a sad news for you. A Christian woman has burned the holy Quran. Therefore, all reasonable men and even young male children (of this village) are requested to converge at the brick kiln as early as possible so that a decision could be made,” Sadiq, a 55-year-old disabled man quoted the cleric making the announcement. The resident of Klarkabad told this reporter that the mob burned the couple to death allegedly for burning some pages of a copy of the Quran.

Similar announcements were made in the nearby villages – Chak No 60, Rosa Village, and Bhail Village. Within an hour, hundreds of people riding tractor-trolleys arrived at the brick kiln owned by Chaudhry Yousaf Gujjar.

“They started beating the couple. In the meantime, five policemen also reached the spot but they were helpless before the angry mob,” says 45-year-old Razzak, who preferred that only his first name be published. The policemen fled the spot as they were pelted with stones by the enraged mob.

A 55-year-old Muslim lady, Bashiran Bibi, who lives next to the mosque, told this reporter that she herself listened to the announcement. “The cleric was asked to make the announcements on the loudspeaker,” she said, adding nobody knows what had happened.

Now all the male members of this village have gone into hiding because the police are making arrests, no matter whether a person was present or not there at the time of the incident, she added.

Early on Tuesday the couple was locked up in a room adjacent to the brick kiln by Gujjar, who also had a monetary dispute with the couple. The owner had locked them up in their poorly built cottages to stop them from fleeing bonded labour. In the meantime, hundreds of people stormed into the couple’s home and some of them forced their entry into the room, tearing through the roof. They dragged out the man and his pregnant wife and then invited others to attack the ‘blasphemers’. The police say they were tortured and then burnt in the kiln.

During a tour of the said village on Wednesday evening, this reporter witnessed that almost all the houses were locked from outside. Because of consecutive police raids, the men have fled leaving their women and children behind.

Police however have arrested at least 60 villagers since the tragedy took place but the locals claim that most of those arrested are innocent. They say that those who committed the double-murder managed to escape from the crime scene before heavy police contingents reached there.

The police handed over the charred skeletons of the couple to their families. “We reached the brick kiln when heavy police contingents took over the village. We collected burnt body parts. Those were like burnt bones. Literally, they were reduced to ashes,” said Imran Parkash, a leader of the Christian community in 150-year-old Klarkabad village where almost all the residents are Christians.

He says they were being pressured by the police and local Muslim population to keep silent. “We are being forced (by the police) to withdraw the case. Police are complainant in this case, instead of the victims’ relatives, he pointed out. According to him, besides being tortured mercilessly the couple was paraded naked before they were set on fire.

Reportedly, Shama and her husband fell unconscious after brutal torture. Then they were set on fire and laid on top of the kiln to burn, said Parkash. The couple has left behind two sons and a daughter – all three of them under six years of age.

Parkash also told the other side of the story to The Nation saying that the couple had got Rs200,000 in advance from the kiln owner. They wanted to quit the bonded labour but they had no money to repay the owner before leaving the job.

In Pakistan, kiln workers are paid Rs700 (around 7 US dollars) for making 1,000 bricks. A family of 8-10 persons manages to make 3,000 bricks a day. The two victims, Shahzad Masih and Shama Masih, had been working as labourers at the brick kiln for the last one decade.

Human rights activists say accusations of blasphemy are frequently used to settle personal vendettas or to harass religious minorities. “We are scared and terrified because we could be the next victims (of such violence). We will die here but we will not leave our homes,” says Akram Masih, a seven-year-old schoolboy.

Heavy police contingents are deployed around the Christian and Muslim villages located next to each other to avoid any further untoward happening. Elite police commandoes equipped with assault rifles are seen patrolling in the villages.

A police officer claimed that the couple had died when the cops reached the crime scene. “Their bodies were totally burned,” district police officer told reporters on Wednesday. He also said that a criminal case had been registered against at least 500 people, and 48 people had been arrested. The police were conducting raids to detain more suspects, he added.

Two clerics, identified as Noor Hassan and Moulvi Muhammad Hussain, are among those arrested. The residents of Chack No 59 say the police brutally tortured the cleric, who made the announcement, when they raided the mosque. The cleric has been hospitalised with fractured legs, ostensibly due to police torture.

Senior police officials and government ministers have now arrived there to investigate the killings. Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif has formed a three-member committee to investigate the killings. Also, the police have been ordered to increase security around Christian neighborhoods in the whole province.