Authorities in northwestern Pakistan said Monday they had arrested around 30 people in connection with an overnight mob assault on a police station aimed at grabbing and lynching a mentally unstable detainee accused of insulting Islam.
Witnesses and police said thousands of protesters stormed the police station in Charsadda, a district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Sunday evening and burned the facility along with several nearby security outposts after police refused to hand over the blasphemy suspect.
The mob attack forced police officers to abandon the installation and flee to safety along with the detainee, district police chief Asif Bahadur Khan told reporters Monday.
A video circulating on social media showed the police station burning.
The alleged blasphemer was taken into police custody earlier in the day on charges he desecrated Islam’s holy book, the Quran. Khan said an investigation was underway into the charges against the detainee, but he declined to share further details.
Residents said tension was still high in the Pakistani district amid heavy police deployment to deter further unrest. Khan said they had also engaged local Islamic clerics to help defuse the tension and urge demonstrators to let the law decide the fate of the alleged blasphemer.
Insulting Islam or its Prophet Mohammad carries the death penalty in Pakistan, where mere blasphemy allegations often provoke mob violence and lynching of suspects.
In 2017, a mob of students at a university in Mardan district, next to Charsadda, attacked and killed a fellow student, Mohammad Mashal, after accusing him of sharing blasphemous content on Facebook.
Critics of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws say accusations of insulting Islam are often used to intimidate religious minorities and settle personal scores in the pre-dominantly Muslim country.
Earlier this month the United States designated Pakistan, along with nine other countries, as violators of religious freedom, saying they have “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”
The U.S. secretary of state compiles a list of such countries each year. Other countries listed this year are Russia, China, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Eritrea, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Pakistan rejected the U.S. designation as “arbitrary” and the outcome of a “selective assessment”, saying it was against the realities on the ground and raised “serious doubts about the credibility” of the exercise “Such subjective designations do not contribute towards promoting the cause of religious freedom world-wide,” it added.