• Mob lynches victim over blasphemy charge, burns body • Two main suspects among those arrested, raids continue to nab more • PM promises culprits will be punished with ‘full severity’ of law • Colombo ‘expects’ required action will be taken to ensure justice
NAROWAL: Furious workers of a garment factory in Sialkot on Friday tortured their Sri Lankan general manager to death over allegations of blasphemy and set the body on fire.
The brutal killing drew widespread condemnation from government officials and human rights bodies.
The employees of Rajco Industries, located on Wazirabad Road, staged a protest on the premises alleging that Priyantha Kumara, had committed blasphemy. On receiving information about the protest, three personnel of the Uggoki police reached the spot, but the mob clearly outnumbered them, making them silent spectators.
According to a local journalist, the district police chief was contacted several times on his mobile phone, but he did not answer.
The protesters suspended traffic on Wazirabad Road and were joined by all the factory workers and a large number of locals. On seeing the mob gradually swell from a few dozen to hundreds, Mr Kumara dashed to the roof. Shouting slogans, the charged protesters chased him, dragged him out on the road and tortured him with kicks, stones and iron rods, killing him on the spot. The mob then set the body on fire.
Sialkot Deputy Commissioner (DC) Tahir Farooq and District Police Officer (DPO) Omar Saeed Malik along with a heavy contingent of police reached the spot and took the body into custody.
Rescue 1122 District Emergency Officer Naveed Iqbal said they transferred the body to Sialkot’s Allama Iqbal Teaching Hospital immediately, adding that a rescue ambulance and fire brigade were present on the spot during the protest.
Mr Kumara, a Sri Lankan Christian, had been working at Rajco Industries for 10 years.
Witnesses Mohammad Iftikhar and Mohammad Ilyas said when the protest started and the road was blocked, only three personnel from the Uggoki police station arrived. Had the DPO responded to the sensitive matter on time, the killing could have been avoided. They held police’s incompetence responsible for the gruesome incident.
Mohammad Hafeez and Jabbar Khan recalled that in 2010 two brothers were lynched by angry protesters owing to police’s incompetence and failure to respond on time.
Chief Minister Usman Buzdar took notice of the killing and demanded a report from the chief secretary and Punjab inspector general of police (IGP). “I am extremely shocked at the horrific Sialkot incident. I have instructed IG Police to thoroughly investigate it. No one is allowed to take law in their hands. Rest assured, individuals involved in this inhumane act will not be spared!!” he tweeted.
Police managed to disperse the protesters from Wazirabad Road and reopen it for traffic. Later, Gujranwala Commissioner Zulfiqar Ghumman and Regional Police Officer Imran Ahmar also reached the spot as part of the inquiry into the incident.
Sialkot police constituted 10 raiding teams to arrest the culprits. According to police sources, a first information report of the incident was registered at the Uggoki police station for aggravated murder and burning of the body against dozens of unidentified people under terrorism and murder provisions. Police collected videos of the torture from social media. They also claimed to have arrested over 145 suspects and transferred them to an unidentified location.
Reacting to the “horrific vigilante attack”, Prime Minister Imran Khan said it was 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,” he tweeted.
Meanwhile, a Sri Lankan media outlet reported that the country’s Foreign Ministry expected the Pakistani authorities to take the required action to investigate and ensure justice following the lynching of Mr Kumara.
“The [Sri Lankan] Foreign Ministry has received reports of an alleged incident of torture and burning of the body of a Sri Lankan in Sialkot, Pakistan,” said spokesperson Sugeeshwara Gunaratna. “The Sri Lanka High Commission in Islamabad is in the process of verifying the details of the incident from the Pakistan authorities.”
Later in the day, Special Assistant to the Punjab Chief Minister on Information Hasaan Khawar said every aspect of the tragic incident was being investigated.
Speaking at a presser, Mr Khawar, flanked by the IGP and Special Representative to the Prime Minister on Religious Harmony Allama Tahir Ashrafi, said a high-level inquiry was being conducted and its report would be made public in 48 hours. Immediate action would be taken against all those involved in this heinous incident. He claimed that around 50 people had been arrested while the process of identifying more culprits was under way with the help of CCTV footage and Nadra.
In the evening, Punjab Law Minister Basharat Raja chaired a meeting at the Civil Secretariat to discuss the incident with the chief secretary, IGP, additional chief secretary (home), and the additional inspectors general of Special Branch and Counter-Terrorism Department.
The Sialkot DC and DPO briefed the meeting about the details of the incident through video link. They claimed the deceased was known to be a strict administrator, adding around 110 suspects had been arrested, while raids were being conducted to apprehend the others. The police was seeking the assistance of other managers of the factory to identify the culprits.
The meeting instructed the police to look into the administrative matters besides blasphemy allegations as the lynched manager was said to be a strict administrator.
The law minister directed that security be beefed up in churches in and around Sialkot besides offering police protection to the foreigners working in different factories. Chief Secretary Kamran Ali Afzal said an impartial inquiry was being conducted and facts would soon be brought to the fore soon.
In a late-night statement, the IGP claimed that two main suspects, Farhan Idrees and Usman Rasheed, were among those arrested.
The army chief condemned the “cold-blooded and shameful murder” of Mr Kumara by a mob. “Such extra-judicial vigilantism cannot be condoned at any cost. The COAS directs all out-support to the civil administration to arrest perpetrators of this heinous crime and bring them to justice,” the Inter-Services Public Relations quoted the army chief as saying.
Condemnations also poured in from across the political divide. Federal Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari tweeted: “Horrific & condemnable act of the mob attack on factory & murder of Sri Lankan manager in Sialkot. Mob violence cannot be acceptable under any circumstance as state has laws to deal with all offences. Punjab govt’s action must & will be firm and unambiguous.”
Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid said federal government institutions were assisting the Punjab government in investigating the incident. The National Crisis Cell was ascertaining the reasons behind the cruel act and the perpetrators will be taken to a court of law.
“The entire society will have to work together to get rid of extremism in the name of religion,” he tweeted.
In her tweet, PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz questioned if “such barbarity was our identity and the future of the coming generations”. Asking if the country could ever be considered safe, she said the government was non-existent and there was no one to question.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in a statement, demanded an immediate and transparent inquiry into the incident, saying not only must the perpetrators be brought to justice, but the state also cease its collusion with far-right elements. “The unthinkable savagery with which a Sialkot mob has tortured a Sri Lankan man to death and burned his body on flimsy allegations of blasphemy should bring home once and for all the grim reality of spiraling radicalisation in Pakistan. Regrettably, the state’s response has been cowardly at best and complicit at worst,” it added.
Global rights body, Amnesty International, expressed alarm over the lynching and demanded the authorities 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.”
Moreover, the ulema and mashaykh of all religious schools of thought, Pakistan Ulema Council and Interfaith Harmony Council also condemned the killing, saying it was a violation of the teachings of the holy Quran and Sunnah.
The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which was linked to the gory incident by social media users, distanced itself from the lynching, and condemned it. “While the incident is tragic, what’s equally sad is linking the TLP to it. We call for an independent and transparent investigation and those responsible to be arrested and exposed. When the rule of law prevails, no one will dare take the law into their hands,” a TLP spokesman said.
A similar incident in Sialkot in 2010 had shaken the country when a mob had lynched two young brothers in the presence of police, declaring them dacoits. In 2019, the Supreme Court had commuted the death sentence awarded to seven people involved in the incident to 10-year imprisonment.
Mansoor Malik in Lahore also contributed to this report
Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2021