Family disputes police claim that the death of a street vendor in Kasur was not a lynching by wedding guests
On March 21, Muhammad Ashraf alias Sultan, a street vendor, died allegedly after being beaten up by a mob during a wedding in Pattoki. He had been accused of picking pockets.
The incident drew public attention when a video clip showing the wedding guests having lunch while the body lay on the floor next to them went viral.
The chief minister took notice of the incident and sought a report from the Punjab Police chief. The police then registered a murder FIR against six unidentified suspects. It later claimed to have arrested as many as 12 people using CCTV footage and social media video clips.
After a few days, however, the police stated that it had not been a case of lynching. They said the medico-legal report (MLR) had shown that there were no signs of an injury on Ashraf’s body.
Having reservations regarding the MLR, a brother of the deceased then submitted an application before a local court seeking directions for the exhumation to ascertain the cause of death. Some relatives of the deceased have claimed that Ashraf’s body had been badly bruised and had had many injury marks. They say the police and the medical officer are conniving with the suspects.
Meanwhile, a report submitted by the tehsil administration says the deceased was beaten to death by an angry mob after he was accused of pick-pocketing.
Lynchings are not unheard of in Pakistan. However, most of the recent incidents of mob justice have involved those accused of blasphemy. The incident bears some similarity the lynching of two teenage brothers, Muneeb Sajjad and Mughees Sajjad August 15, 2010, in Sialkot following allegations of theft/robbery. The trial court, an anti terrorist court, had sentenced the accused to death. The sentence was later confirmed by the Lahore High Court. However, the Supreme Court of Pakistan converted the death sentence to life imprisonment in October 2019.
Citing the medico-legal report, police stated that it was not a lynching case. They said there were no sign of an injury on Ashraf’s body. A brother of the deceased has since submitted an application before a local court seeking a direction for the exhumation of the body to ascertain the cause of death.
Human rights defenders are worried over an uptick in incidents of lynching including cases having no religious reference. They say that even where there is no direct reference to religion, this toxic behaviour is fuelled by religio-political parties/ leaders.
Rights activists and critics of governance are of the view that the promises to end vigilantism represent empty rhetoric. They say the government has not taken any practical steps to curb violence. Some of them blame the current government’s populist style which they say emboldens violent mobs to take law into their hands. Pakistan is among the states having the highest instances of mob violence.
“The lack of commitment and political will has always been the biggest obstacle to the establishment of the writ of the state to ensure sanctity of the vulnerable segments of society,” says Advocate Rabiyya Bajwa, a rights activist. She says the incumbent government is no different from its predecessors in promising to tackle the menace of religious violence.
“There has been an increase in fanaticism during the tenure of the current government. By repeatedly giving in to the demands of a particular group of religious extremists, the rulers have turned made them into a political party. It takes a great deal of professional integrity and personal courage to resist the huge overt pressure and threats faced by the law enforcement,” she says.
Rights activist Advocate Nadeem Anthony says there is a need for awareness and education to weed out barbarism from society. “Law enforcement personnel should be properly trained and equipped to handle vigilante mobs and to deal with dignity. From minor imprisonment to capital punishment, there is every type of punishment available in Pakistan’s legal codes. However, these have failed to deter this crime against humanity. Making new laws is not difficult in Pakistan; their implementation is. To implement the law in letter and spirit, one needs to create awareness, increase the level of education and introduce the subject of human rights at every level of education. There is a dire need to educate the people, particularly the youth, not to seek pride in violence. Pride should instead be associated with being nice to one another,” he says. “The society that has been radicalised over the last four decades. There is need for a sustainable policy to de-radicalise it. This will not be possible until every segment of the society, including politicians, civil society and law enforcement agencies, are on the same page in this regard,” Anthony says.
The writer is based in Canada. He has studied religion, culture and global justice. He can be reached @RanaTanver