Pakistan court demands 'blasphemy' rampage answers

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's top court on Wednesday ordered police and provincial officials to explain why they failed to prevent a riot in a Christian area of Lahore in which more than 100 homes were torched.

A mob of more than 3,000 furious Muslims rampaged through the Joseph Colony area of Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city, on Saturday looting property and burning buildings after a Christian was accused of blasphemy.

Three days went by between the blasphemy claims, which often provoke a violent public response in Pakistan, and the carnage in Joseph Colony.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry said the violence could have been avoided.

"We would like to have a clear stance of (Punjab) provincial government on failure to provide protection to people," Justice Chaudhry said during a Supreme Court hearing.

He rejected a report submitted by the provincial government, saying: "nothing has been produced to establish causes of the incident in Joseph Colony... we need a specific reply".

"Similarly, no specific reply has been submitted in the report about conduct of police officers including the inspector general of Punjab police, city police chief and the local in-charge of police in the area," Justice Chaudhry said.

Police and locals said the blasphemy allegations stemmed from a drunken argument last Wednesday between a Christian sanitary worker and his Muslim friend, who accused the Christian of making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed during the row.

Punjab was the scene of one of the worst outbreaks of anti-Christian violence in recent years when a mob burned 77 houses and killed at least seven people in the town of Gojra in 2009 after rumours that a Koran had been desecrated.

No one was killed in Saturday's violence but Justice Chaudhry said lessons should have been learned from Gojra and a system put in place to protect Christians.

Police held 150 people over the Lahore incident and 21 have been sent on judicial remand on charges of riot and arson.

Blasphemy is a very sensitive issue in Pakistan, where 97 per cent of the 180 million population are Muslims, and even unproven allegations can spark a violent public response.

Rights campaigners argue the country's strict blasphemy laws, which include the death penalty, are often abused to settle personal scores and should be reformed.

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