Christian 'blasphemy' couple held by boss before murder in Pakistan: Relatives

CHAK 59, Pakistan (AFP) - A Pakistani Christian bonded labourer and his pregnant wife killed for alleged blasphemy were locked inside a brick-making factory before their murder to prevent them from fleeing their debts, relatives said Wednesday.

Shehzad Masih and Shama Bibi, who was four months pregnant and a mother to three children, were later beaten surrounded by a crowd of up to 1,500 villagers then thrown on top of a lit furnace, multiple witnesses said.

By the time the Muslim mob was done, only charred bones and their discarded shoes remained.

The gruesome incident took place Tuesday in the tiny hamlet of Chak 59 (Village 59) near Kot Radha Kishan town, some 60km south-west of Lahore.

It has sparked protests by Christians and outrage among rights activists, with police arresting 24 suspects on Wednesday.

Jawad Qamar, a local police official, said according to initial reports that events began to unfold more than a week earlier with the death of Shehzad's father, a local religious healer.

"When he died, Shehzad's wife went to his room and cleaned up the mess. There was a trunk in his room, Shehzad's wife took the things that could be useful and threw the trash in front of her house," said Qamar.

"The garbage collector collected the trash the next day and told a local cleric that he had collected pages of the Koran thrown in front of Shehzad's house from the trash."

Iqbal Masih, Shehzad's older bother, told AFP that he and his whole family were bonded workers paying off their debts to the brick kiln owner, a man named Mohammed Yousuf - an illegal practice branded by rights groups as akin to modern-day slavery.

"We take advance money from the owner and work for him, it has been going on for years. On Nov 3, the owner had called Iqbal and detained him, sensing that he might run away to save his life," he said tearfully.

The allegation against the factory owner was repeated by two other witnesses interviewed by AFP, but denied by his son Khawar Yousuf.

"We don't know what has happened, the family has been working for us for 20 years and we have never noticed anything bad."

"It's wrong to say that my father locked them up," he added.

Malik Abdul Aziz, a cameraman who witnessed the event, said around 1,500 people gathered from nearby villages after being stoked up by local clerics who announced the couple had committed blasphemy over the loudspeakers of their mosques.

"They started beating the couple with sticks and bricks chanting slogans of 'We will lay down our lives for the honour of the prophet' and then tore off their clothes.

"The couple were screaming, begging for mercy and saying they have not committed any sin.

"The mob dragged them for around 20 yards and laid them on top of the brick kiln oven and kept them there till they were burnt," he added.

It was not clear whether they were already dead or burnt alive.

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in the majority Muslim country, with even unproven allegations often prompting mob violence.

Those who take part in the violence are rarely if ever prosecuted - a fact not lost upon the relatives of the deceased.

"I need justice but I am sure I won't be able to get it, the clerics are too powerful," Shehzad's brother Iqbal said.