A Sri Lankan factory manager in Pakistan has been beaten to death and set ablaze by a mob, police confirmed, in an incident local media reported was linked to alleged blasphemy.
The incident took place in Sialkot, about 200km (125 miles) southeast of the capital Islamabad, on Friday.
Few issues are as galvanising in Pakistan as blasphemy, and even the slightest suggestion of an insult to Islam can supercharge protests and incite lynchings.
Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was overseeing the investigation into “the horrific vigilante attack”, as he called it “a day of shame for Pakistan”.
“Let there be no mistake all those responsible will be punished with full severity of the law,” he tweeted.
The horrific vigilante attack on factory in Sialkot & the burning alive of Sri Lankan manager is a day of shame for Pakistan. I am overseeing the investigations & let there be no mistake all those responsible will be punished with full severity of the law. Arrests are in progress
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) December 3, 2021
A police official in Sialkot, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said investigators believed the attackers had accused the manager of blasphemy for tearing down a poster with Islamic holy verses.
Several gruesome video clips shared on social media showed a mob beating the prone victim while chanting slogans against blasphemy.
Other clips showed his body set ablaze, as well as the overturned wreckage of what was said to be his car.
Many in the mob made no attempt to hide their identity and some took selfies in front of the burning corpse.
Punjab government spokesman Hassaan Khawar told reporters in Lahore that police have already arrested 50 people.
“CCTV footage is being carefully looked into as we have been directed to complete the inquiry within 48 hours,” he said.
The slogans chanted in the social media videos were the same used by supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) – an anti-blasphemy party.
The TLP has in the past paralysed the country with protests, including an anti-France campaign after Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last year republished cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Mob killings over accusations of blasphemy have been frequent in Pakistan, where the crime can carry the death sentence.
Tahir Ashrafi, Khan’s adviser for interfaith harmony, condemned the killers in a recorded video statement shared on social media.
“It is a barbaric act and against Islam’s teaching,” he said.
A senior Pakistan official told AFP news agency that Islamabad had been in touch with Sri Lankan diplomats over the incident “and have assured them that all those involved in the heinous crime will be brought to justice”.
Rights groups say accusations of blasphemy can often be wielded to settle personal vendettas, with minorities largely the target.
“Today’s event underscores the urgency with which an environment that enables abuse and puts lives at risk must be rectified,” Amnesty International South Asia said in a tweet under the hashtag #Sialkot, which was trending in Pakistan.