Extremist party supporters beat and burn Sri Lankan man in Pakistan’s latest blasphemy killing

A crowd of people chanting slogans associated with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party killed a Sri Lankan man on December 3, burning his body in the street.

Videos and photos shared online show the harrowing scene in Sialkot, Pakistan on December 3 as a mob of people killed Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan factory manager who was accused of blasphemy. The crowd chanted slogans linked to the extremist Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party, which was “unbanned” by the government just a few weeks ago. According to our Observer, a human rights professional in Pakistan, the party’s rise has been linked to more cases of blasphemy-related violence.

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Several videos shared on social media show the shocking scene: a crowd of hundreds of people descend on a man known as Priyantha Kumara (his real name was Diyawadanage Priyantha). Images that the FRANCE 24 Observers team has chosen not to publish show the crowd brutally beating Kumara, whose clothes have been removed. They drag him by the legs as people in the crowd film with their phones, and even take selfies. The crowd finished by setting his body on fire in the middle of the street.

Warning: These images may be disturbing to some readers.

A mob lynched a #SriLankan manager of a sports factory in Sialkot accusing him of #blasphemy after he allegedly ripped off #TLP stickers from the factory wall Hundreds of people gathered,beat him to death and then burnt his body #Pakistan @HumanIT@UN @calxandr @MunazaShaheed pic.twitter.com/rwBxsOgXwG — Engr Ahtisham Kakar (@ahtisham_kakar) December 3, 2021 A crowd of people gather around the body of Priyantha Kumara, a factory manager, in Sialkot, Pakistan on December 3, 2021.

A screenshot from a video of the incident shows a crowd surrounding the burning body. © Twitter/imafzaal5

A screenshot from a video of the incident shows people taking videos and selfies. © Twitter/fc_kangana

The scene occurred in Sialkot, a city in the Punjab region of northeast Pakistan. Kumara, a Buddhist, was a manager at the Rajco Industries factory, which produces sports equipment. He was accused of blasphemy, for allegedly tearing down a religious poster and stickers that contained Quranic verses and the name of the Prophet Muhammad.

In videos of the incident, the crowd can be heard chanting slogans affiliated with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (or “I am present Pakistan” in Urdu) party, a far-right Islamic extremist movement.

A man took responsibility for the murder in an interview with several television stations, before beginning to shout “Labbaik, Labbaik” along with the crowd.

@lelagilbert A man from #Sialkot accepts the responsibility of killing the Sri Lankan manager of a factory in Sialkot.

Loud slogans of “Labbaik, Labbaik” can be witnessed after he finishes talking.

govt Pakistan unbanned TLP in a secret deal recently. #Blasphemy @calxandr pic.twitter.com/ZnGnsz0rwz — Faraz Pervaiz فراز پرویز (@FarazPervaiz3) December 3, 2021

‘He took down a poster that he didn’t even understand, and the supervisor got angry’

Naveed Walter is the president of Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP), an NGO that focuses on protecting the rights of religious minorities, women and children through advocacy and legal aid. The organisation spoke to witnesses to the attack.

We have a hotline for religious persecution issues in Pakistan. When this incident happened, people started to call us and tell us that a person working in a factory was victimised for blasphemy. We have a network of regional volunteers around the country and members of our team spoke to witnesses. Some of these witnesses told us that Priyantha Kumara had asked one of the factory supervisors to help him clean up the premises, inside and outside – clean the bathrooms, paint, whitewash… And during that time, all the of the things hanging on the walls, they removed them – including any stickers, posters, anything. And since Kumara doesn’t know the local language, so he took down a poster [Editor’s note: containing Islamic writings] that he didn’t even understand, and the supervisor got angry. That person gathered his coworkers and others in the town and told them what he did. And the attack took a long time. They accused, they gathered, the mob beat him, he ran away and went to a roof. He went there and tried to hide but the mob went upstairs. One or two people asked them not to kill him, but they dragged him, beat him and brought him downstairs again. They took his clothes off in front of the factory, on the other side of the road. There, they burned him. It took a long time, but there was no police, no security agency, no state actors. People called the emergency number but the police did not arrive for 20 minutes. One of the officers on patrol admitted they were unable to control the mob. The government has no strategy to deal with mob violence and religious fanaticism. It happens again and again.

Kumara’s body was sent to Sri Lanka on December 6. More than 100 people were arrested for the murder after the fact.

Blasphemy’s role in mob violence

This isn’t the first time that blasphemy has been instrumentalised in Pakistan for violence or extra-judicial punishment. Pakistan, an Islamic Republic since 1956, has been ceding to conservative Islamist groups for decades, entrenching radical extremism in the country’s political climate.

Blasphemy laws date back to British colonial times, and were “Islamicised” in the 1980s by the then military government. The laws set severe punishments for insulting Islam. Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code states that “whoever by words, by visible representation or by any insinuation defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammed shall be punished with death, and also be liable to fine”.

Moreover, people can be accused of blasphemy just based on rumours or grudges. But once the allegation is made, the accused face severe consequences.

In 2020, there were 80 people awaiting death sentences for blasphemy. But often, cases of supposed blasphemy are settled extra-judicially, by mob violence and targeted attacks. Even allegations of blasphemy have been known to incite mob violence.

In late November, a mob set fire to a police station after police refused to hand over a man accused of blasphemy by desecrating the Quran.

In April 2021, two women in Punjab province were arrested for blasphemy after removing a sticker with a Quranic verse on it. One of the women was reportedly attacked by a colleague with a knife.

In January 2021, a Christian nurse working in a hospital was beaten by a mob of her coworkers after saying she would pray for a patient.

>> Read more on The Observers: Pakistan: Christian nurse beaten and accused of blasphemy by her colleagues

The Human Rights Focus Pakistan hotline receives over 1,000 calls per year reporting incidents against religious minorities, according to Walter. Recently, he says, the calls have more and more links to violence perpetrated by members of TLP, directly and indirectly.

Who are Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan?

Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan is a far-right Islamic extremist party that was formed in 2015 and became the fifth largest party in Pakistan after garnering more than 2 million votes in the 2018 general election. A cornerstone of the party is its stance against blasphemy.

The party was behind a series of protests in Pakistan during 2020, which escalated in April 2021 when the party’s leader, Saad Hussain Rizvi, was arrested. In October 2020, they had demanded a boycott of French goods as well as the removal of the French ambassador to Pakistan after the murder of Samuel Paty, who was beheaded for displaying a cartoon of the prophet in his classroom. They had previously protested after the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad.

Following the rallies, the party was outlawed by the Pakistani government, but they continued to protest. In October 2021, TLP supporters staged a “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad to demand that Rivzi be released and renew calls for the French ambassador’s expulsion.

To quell these protests, which often turned violent and killed 11 people, the government reached an agreement with the party, effectively lifting the year-long ban. The government agreed to release more than 2,000 jailed TLP members as well as the part’s leader as well as allow the party to run in upcoming elections.

Opponents of the party say the government’s folding to TLP has emboldened members of the group to mobilise against alleged blasphemy.

Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan called the lynching a “horrific vigilante attack” and said those responsible would be punished “with full severity of the law”.