Death penalty for six men in Pakistan over mob killing of Sri Lankan man accused of blasphemy

An anti-terrorism court in Lahore has sentenced six men to death in connection with the ghastly mob killing of a Sri Lankan man accused of blasphemy in 2021.

The court also handed life sentences to nine people, five years’ imprisonment to one person, and two-year sentences to 72 people involved in the vigilante killing that rocked Pakistan last year.

Priyantha Kumara, a 48-year-old factory manager in the eastern city of Sialkot, was beaten to death and his body was set ablaze by scores of enraged workers on 3 December last year.

The workers accused the Sri Lankan christian of blasphemy for allegedly desecrating posters with the name of Prophet Muhammad.

Videos showed him being chased onto a roof, then beaten with sticks, dragged onto the streets, stripped and set alight. A colleague who tried to help him was shoved aside.

Kumara had been working at Rajco Industries’ garment factory for 10 years.

Former prime minister Imran Khan had called it a “horrific vigilante attack” and “a day of shame for Pakistan” at that time.

File photo: Police officers escort suspects involved in the killing of Priyantha Kumara (AP)

Only three police officers were reportedly present at the spot of the crime and failed to control the violent crowd that blocked the road. Local police later registered complaints against 900 workers for inciting violence and scores of others on terror and murder charges.

Some 89 people, including nine juveniles, were tried, the prosecutor said.

Blasphemy is penalised in Muslim-majority Pakistan under stringent laws and carries a death sentence. However, mob lynchings over the mere allegation of committing blasphemy have been a frequent affair in the country.

An eight-year-old Hindu boy was the youngest to be charged with blasphemy in 2021.

Forty-three witnesses, including Kumara’s colleague who had tried to save him, were brought in by the proseccutor on Monday.

Footage from 10 digital video recorders in the factory was sent for forensic analysis and the accused were traced via social media videos recovered from the mobile phones of 56 accused, The Dawn reported.

Abdul Rauf Wattoo, the lead public prosecutor, told AFP, that the “prosecution team worked very hard to present its case to the court and to reach this judgement”.

The barbaric killing led to widespread protests and vigils in both nations, prompting Pakistan’s military to condemn the violence. Demands were also raised to publicly hang the killers.

“Such extrajudicial vigilantism cannot be condoned at any cost,” the military’s press wing had said, adding that the chief of the army staff had ordered full support to the civil administration.