Sri Lankan citizen Priyantha Kumara was beaten to death and set on fire by an angry mob in Pakistan's Punjab province over blasphemy allegations. (Photo supplied)
As factory workers took selfies with the burning corpse of their manager, Farhan Idrees proudly spoke to local media about the alleged blasphemy.
“Priyantha Kumara tore a paper from the wall. It was inscribed with the name of Hussain [grandson of Prophet Mohammad]. He threw it in the basket,” said Idrees, who appeared to be in his 20s.
“We complained to the foreman and demanded an apology. He tried to run away. We went on strike and gathered people, protested and burned him."
“Labaik Ya Rasool Allah” chanted the mob surrounding the remains of Kumara spread on road amid stones, bricks and sticks in front of Rajco Industries, a sportswear manufacturing company in Sialkot, Punjab province. Videos of his vandalized car and lynching went viral on social media on Dec. 3.
Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, Prime Minister Imran Khan's special representative on religious harmony, disputes their claim.
“This man [Kumara] used to urge people to work efficiently. Our hearts are wounded. These three incidents were reported in the past year. We urgently send ulemas to avoid similar incidents. The United Ulema Board Punjab has reviewed 113 cases and often given relief to the innocent,” he told media.
Kumara was killed in front of police and fire brigade officials who were afraid of the mob. We need to start a movement to change the blasphemy law and prevent its misuse
“Ulema of all sects have condemned the killing. This is a test case. We ask for forgiveness from the people of Sri Lanka and the victim’s family.”
Idrees was among more than 100 protesters arrested on charges of murder and terrorism. Both PM Khan and army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa have strongly condemned the Sialkot incident and announced strict punishment for the suspects.
According to Pastor Iqbal Masih of the Presbyterian Church in Sialkot, local Christians avoided protests about Kumara's murder.
“We are not powerful enough to challenge them. Earlier there were rumors that he had converted to Christianity in a local church five months ago. There were no prayers for him either because he was a Hindu,” he told UCA News.
“Kumara was killed in front of police and fire brigade officials who were afraid of the mob. We need to start a movement to change the blasphemy law and prevent its misuse. The victim doesn’t get a chance to explain his position. All affected Christians are innocent. However, our community is preoccupied with smaller issues.”
Amnesty International said it is deeply alarmed by the “disturbing lynching” and killing of Kumara due to alleged blasphemy.
“Authorities must immediately conduct an independent, impartial and prompt investigation and hold the perpetrators accountable. Today’s event underscores the urgency with which an environment that enables abuse and puts lives at risk must be rectified,” it stated in a tweet.
In a press statement, Akmal Bhatti, the Catholic chairman of Minorities Alliance Pakistan, condemned the murder of the Sri Lankan citizen.
“The rulers are continuously pushing all society in the quagmire of extremism. The army of murderers and wolves is ready. The survival of Pakistan depends on making its citizens humane and peaceful,” he said.
“We are feeling helpless in front of ignorant and religious fanatics. Political and religious leaders as well as security establishment should learn from this tragedy and endeavor for a liberal and secular Pakistan.”
Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where strict blasphemy laws prescribe a mandatory death penalty for the crime. Mere blasphemy allegations often provoke mob violence and lynching of suspects.
More recently, both state and non-state actors have used blasphemy allegations in furtherance of their vested interests to silence activists and critics
According to the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), as many as 70 people have been killed since 1986 following allegations that they had committed blasphemy.
In 2014, an enraged mob brutalized an illiterate Christian couple, identified only as Shama and Shehzad, in the town of Kot Radha Kishan, near Lahore, for allegedly burning a copy of the Quran in a brick kiln where they had been working as bonded laborers. The mob proceeded to burn Shama and Shehzad alive.
In 2009, nearly 40 houses and a church were burned by a mob in Gojra town in Punjab, with eight people burned alive.
“Moreover, countless families have been threatened, attacked and forced to leave their homes; and lawyers and judges involved in blasphemy legal cases have been persecuted for performing their duties independently and impartially. More recently, both state and non-state actors have used blasphemy allegations in furtherance of their vested interests to silence activists and critics,” the ICJ stated in a briefing paper titled "Violations of the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Pakistan" published this July.
Catholic human rights bodies blame conceptual flaws in blasphemy laws for their rampant abuse. Both Islamabad High Court and the Senate’s Special Committee on Human Rights have recommended the same punishment for false accusation of blasphemy. However, they have been ignored.
According to the Catholic bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace, 112 people were accused of blasphemy last year. These included 96 Muslims, 10 Ahmadis and four Christians.
Last month Lahore police arrested four Muslims charged with blasphemy after they argued with a cleric over whether a funeral announcement for a Christian neighbor could be made from a mosque.