Sialkot (AP) – A Muslim mob descended on a sports equipment factory in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province on Friday, killing a Sri Lankan man and burning his body publicly over allegations of blasphemy, police said.
Armagan Gondal, a police chief in the district of Sialkot, where the killing occurred, said factory workers had accused the victim of desecrating posters bearing the name of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Police said initial information shows the Sri Lankan, later identified as Priyantha Kumara, a manager at the facility, was lynched inside the factory.
Videos circulating on social media showed the mob dragging his heavily bruised body outside, where they burned it, surrounded by hundreds of others who cheered on the killers.
Senior police officer Omar Saeed Malik said police were still trying to determine what exactly prompted the mob to attack Kumara, whose body was sent to hospital for an autopsy. A thorough investigation was underway, he said.
In Colombo, Foreign Ministry spokesman Sugeeswara Gunaratne said their embassy in Islamabad was verifying details of the incident with Pakistani authorities.
“Sri Lanka expects that the Pakistan authorities will take required action to investigate and ensure justice,” he said.
Hours after the attack, Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Twitter that the “horrific vigilante attack on factory & the burning alive of Sri Lankan manager is a day of shame for Pakistan”.
He promised a thorough investigation and said those responsible will be severely punished according to the law.
In a statement, Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa denounced the killing, saying the “cold-blooded murder” by a mob in Sialkot was “extremely condemnable and shameful”.
“Such extra-judicial vigilantism cannot be condoned at any cost”, Bajwa added.
According to police, more than 100 suspects were arrested over involvement in the attack, widely condemned by many Pakistanis. They included at least two suspects who according to police openly said they took part in the attack to kill the Sri Lankan.
Amnesty International said in a statement it was “deeply alarmed by the disturbing lynching and killing of a Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot, allegedly due to a blasphemy accusation”. The watchdog also demanded an investigation and punishment for the attackers.
In the videos, some in the mob are heard chanting a popular slogan of a radical Sufi Islamist party, Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan, which last month held a violent rally over the publications of caricatures of Islam’s prophet in France.
The party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 elections, campaigning on the single issue of defending the blasphemy law.
Mob attacks on people accused of blasphemy are common in this Islamic nation, although such attacks on foreign nationals are rare. Charges of blasphemy carry the death penalty under Pakistani law. International and Pakistani rights groups say accusations of blasphemy have often been used to intimidate religious minorities and settle personal scores.
Punjab’s chief minister Usman Buzdar tweeted that he ordered a probe into the attack. Khan’s special adviser on religious affairs, Tahir Ashrafi, condemned the killing and promised stern punishment for those involved.
Friday’s attack comes less than a week after a Muslim mob burned a police station and four police posts in northwestern Pakistan, after officers refused to hand over a mentally unstable man accused of desecrating Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an.
No officers were hurt in the attacks in Charsadda, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Pakistan’s government has long been under pressure to change the country’s blasphemy laws, something the Islamists strongly resist.
A Punjab governor was shot and killed by his own guard in 2011, after he defended a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy. She was acquitted after spending eight years on death row and, following threats, left Pakistan for Canada to join her family.