By Aamir Latif
KARACHI, Pakistan (AA) – Police in Pakistan have arrested close to 120 people believed to be involved in Friday’s lynching of a Sri Lankan factory manager over allegations of blasphemy.
Priyantha Kumara was beaten to death and his body burnt publicly by a mob in Sialkot, a city in the northeastern Punjab province, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) southeast of the capital Islamabad.
A total of 118 suspects, including the key accused, have been arrested and booked under terrorism charges, a Punjab police spokesman said in a statement.
According to media reports quoting officials, workers of the factory accused Kumara of tearing down posters bearing the name of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Videos circulating on social media showed the mob chanting a popular slogan of the far-right group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which has gained prominence in the country with its hardline stance on blasphemy.
Friday’s attack was the latest in a series of similar incidents in recent years, coming less than a week after a mob set a police station on fire in northwestern Pakistan because officials refused to hand over a mentally unstable man accused of blasphemy.
A highly sensitive issue in the Muslim-majority country, blasphemy charges carry the death penalty in Pakistan, but many people have been killed by mobs without their cases ever making it to court.
Rights groups believe Pakistan’s blasphemy law is often used to settle personal scores against religious minorities, while its supporters contend that the law prevents vigilante action.
Currently, over 600 blasphemy cases are pending in Pakistani courts, more than 400 of which involve Muslims, according to official records.
- ‘An act of individuals’
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said he had spoken with his Sri Lankan counterpart Gamini Lakshman Peiris and promised that the government “will ensure all perpetrators will be brought to justice swiftly.”
“Such acts have no place in our faith and country. The Sialkot incident is an act of individuals, not the government’s. It will not affect relations between Pakistan and Sri Lanka,” he said.
The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said it “expects that the Pakistan authorities will take required action to investigate and ensure justice.”
It also welcomed Prime Minister Imran Khan’s remarks on the issue, who said the “horrific vigilante attack … is a day of shame for Pakistan.”
“I am overseeing the investigations and let there be no mistake all those responsible will be punished with full severity of the law,” Khan vowed.
Local and international rights groups, along with politicians and religious leaders in Pakistan, have widely condemned Friday’s attack.
“The savagery with which a Sialkot mob has tortured a Sri Lankan man to death on flimsy allegations of blasphemy should bring home the grim reality of spiraling radicalization in Pakistan,” Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent NGO, said in a statement.
Calling for an immediate and impartial investigation, Amnesty International said it was “deeply alarmed by the disturbing lynching and killing of a Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot, allegedly due to a blasphemy accusation.”
Mufti Taqi Usmani, a globally renowned Islamic scholar, said the perpetrators of the “heinous act” had tarnished Islam’s image.
"There is no justification of blaming someone for blasphemy and taking the law into your own hands. The culprits involved in this heinous act must be brought to justice,” he said.
Siraj ul Haq, chief of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s leading mainstream religious party, also condemned the attack, terming it against the basic teachings and norms of Islam.
The Pakistani military also denounced the “extremely condemnable and shameful” incident.
“Such extra judicial vigilantism cannot be condoned at any cost,” read a statement, adding that army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa has ordered “all out support to civil administration to arrest perpetrators of this heinous crime and bring them to justice.”