MULTAN, Pakistan – The custodian of a local shrine and his accomplices killed 20 devotees after intoxicating them in eastern Punjab province, police said Sunday, in what officials said was the outcome of a dispute over custodianship of the shrine.
Senior police officer Mohammad Bilal said the shrine custodian in a village near the city of Sargodha some 200 miles north of Multan was arrested Sunday morning along with four others for killing worshippers with batons and knives. Bilal said another four people were in critical condition.
A doctor at Sargodha hospital told Geo TV that the victims were killed while nude and the bodies bore multiple stab wounds and blunt weapons marks.
Liaquat Ali Chatta, area government administrator, said Abdul Waheed and his four alleged accomplices were arrested and the matter was being investigated. Chatta said Waheed is a retired government employee and seemed "mentally unstable."
Chatta said the custodian was allegedly in the practice of "beating and torturing" devotees to "cleanse" them. He said Waheed had confessed to the murders.
Zulfiquar Hameed, regional police officer for Sargodha and surrounding districts, said the main suspect's confession and other relevant statements suggested the incident was the "outcome of jealousy and dispute over custodianship" of the shrine.
"This man was afraid of losing prominence and that the position would go to somebody else," said Hameed, who is heading the probe of the incident. "The issue of custodianship ends to this level of incident."
Rana Sanaullah, law minister for the Punjab provincial government, said an initial investigation showed that Waheed had a collection of followers who would regularly visit the shrine and face torture in the name of religious cleansing.
The shrine was built about two years ago on the grave of local religious leader Ali Mohammad Gujjar. Shamsher Joya, a local police officer, said Waheed would come to the shrine twice a week from Lahore, and his followers would submit to "beating and torturing with a red hot iron rod."
Joya said Waheed divulged during the investigation that he had acted to kill the victims after unearthing a plot to poison him.
Waheed alleged the plot was hatched by Asif Gujar, only son of the religious leader buried in the shrine, according to Joya. The 35-year-old Gujjar is among the 20 victims.
Police said the victims were killed at a house adjacent to the shrine and their clothing was found burned.