Over 120 people have been arrested in Pakistan for taking part in the mob lynching of a Sri Lankan factory manager who was beaten to death and set ablaze after being accused of blasphemy, officials said on Saturday.
“A mob has killed the factory manager and burned his body, but we do not have information about the reason behind this incident,” an official at the Sialkot district police station told Anadolu Agency (AA) over the phone, but police on Saturday noted that it was rumored that "the manager has committed blasphemy."
Few issues are as galvanizing in Pakistan as blasphemy, and even the slightest suggestion of an insult to Islam can supercharge protests and incite lynchings.
The incident took place on Friday in Sialkot, a district in central Punjab province, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) southeast of the capital Islamabad.
According to media reports quoting officials, workers of the factory in Sialkot had accused the Sri Lankan national, Priyantha Kumara, of desecrating posters bearing the name of the Prophet Muhammad.
"Rumor spread in the factory that the manager had torn down a religious poster and thrown it in the dustbin," Zulfiqar Ali, a police official in the area told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Soon after the incident, several video clips also went viral on social media that showed the mob chanting slogans of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right Islamic extremist political party in Pakistan, while burning the body.
Khurram Shehzad, a police spokesperson, said up to 120 people had been arrested, included one of the main accused.
Tahir Ashrafi, a religious scholar and special representative of the prime minister on religious harmony, confirmed the arrest and told AFP that workers had complained of the manager being "very strict."
"Police experts are investigating this case from various angles, including that some factory workers played a religious card to take revenge on the manager," Ashrafi said.
Shehzad said raids are continuing.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Twitter: "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."
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.
Malik Naseem Awan, a resident and lawyer in Sialkot, told AFP he was worried about the impact it would have on the country's image.
"I can't tell you how embarrassed I am. It would have been different if someone had done this individually but the crowd present there was watching it silently, and no one tried to rescue him," he said.
Almost all the political and religious parties condemned the incident, including Pakistan's Army Chief.
A senior Pakistan official told AFP 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.
On Sunday thousands of people torched a police station in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after demanding officers hand over a man accused of burning the Koran.
In April 2017, an angry mob lynched university student Mashal Khan when he was accused of posting blasphemous content online.
A Christian couple was lynched then burnt in a kiln in Punjab in 2014 after being falsely accused of desecrating the Koran.
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