In this photograph taken on November 19, 2015, Pakistani labourers work at a brick factory, where a Christian couple were lynched and burnt alive, in the town of Kot Radha Kishan. (Photo: ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)

An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan on Thursday upheld death sentences for three men but acquitted two others including a cleric who had incited people to burn alive a Christian couple accused of blasphemy on the outskirts of Lahore in 2014.

The victims – Shahzad Masih and his pregnant wife Shama – worked as labourers at the brick kiln of Yousaf Gujjar in Kot Radha Kishan. A mob of around 1,000 people allegedly led by the kiln owner lynched and brutally killed the couple on charges of blasphemy in November 2014.

In November 2016, the anti-terrorism court (ATC) had awarded death sentence to five suspects including cleric Hafiz Ishtiaq.

In March 2018, the court acquitted 20 other suspects accused of burning alive the Christian couple, giving them a benefit of doubt.

On Thursday, the Lahore High Court acquitted convicts – cleric Ishtiaq and Mohammad Hanif – and upheld death sentences of other three convicts – Mehdi Khan, Riaz Kambo and Irfan Shakoor.

The lawyer for the convicts told the court that the ATC awarded them death without taking the law into consideration. The (five) convicts had been nominated at a later stage in the case and pleaded for their acquittal, he said.

Lahore High Court Justice Muhammad Qasim Khan ordered acquittal of Ishtiaq and Hanif and dismissed the plea of other three convicts.

Ishtiaq had allegedly provoked the villagers through announcement from area mosques against the Christian couple. The couple was severely tortured, dragged and thrown into the furnace of the kiln by the mob.

The police had booked 660 villagers and nominated 60 of them in the FIR. The autopsy report submitted to the Supreme Court in December 2014 stated that the victim couple was still alive when they were thrown into the kiln.

In 2015, the ATC had indicted over 100 suspects under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism act for ‘the use or threat of action to coerce and intimidate the government or the public or create a sense of fear or insecurity in society.’

(PTI)