An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan has sentenced six men to death and nine others to life in prison for lynching a Sri Lankan factory manager, who they accused of insulting Islam.
The court announced the verdict Monday, sentencing 72 additional suspects to "rigorous" jail terms of two years each. Another person received five years' imprisonment for his role in the fatal mob assault on Priyantha Kumara in December.
The incident took place in the industrial Sialkot district in Punjab province, where Kumara had worked as an export quality control manager at a sporting goods factory for 10 years before being tortured and burned by hundreds of coworkers as well as local activists of a radical Islamist group.
The slain man was accused of desecrating and removing posters bearing the name of the Prophet Muhammad from factory walls before informing others about the allegedly blasphemous act. However, investigators later concluded that the accusations were baseless and Kumara was murdered merely for instructing workers to abide by factory regulations.
The foreigner's brutal murder had drawn nationwide outrage and condemnation, with demands that the perpetrators be publicly hanged, prompting Pakistani authorities to swiftly arrest dozens of suspects and put them on trial.
Defense lawyer Israr Ullah said the special court had conducted the trial inside a prison in the provincial capital, Lahore, for security reasons before announcing the verdict Monday.
Mob lynchings of alleged blasphemers are common in Pakistan, but the assault on the Sri Lankan national was the first such incident involving a foreigner.
In January, Kumara's employer announced it would pay his salary, approximately $1,700 per month, to his widow for the next 10 years, while the Sialkot business community separately donated and transferred $100,000 to her account.
Blasphemy is a highly sensitive matter in majority-Muslim Pakistan and carries the death penalty under local laws, although no one convicted of the crime has been executed to date as lower court convictions are often overturned by the higher judiciary.
Critics have long called for reforming the laws, saying they are abused by influential members of society and religious fanatics to intimidate the country's religious minorities and pressure opponents into settling personal feuds.