An angry crowd of people in Pakistan burned a man to death over allegations he committed “blasphemy” by publicly burning the Islamic holy book, the Quran.

According to police in the Ahmedpur East area of Bahawalpur, in Punjab province, the man was seized from a police station and lynched in front of thousands of onlookers, before police could even question the suspect. He was savagely beaten and then had petrol poured over his body and incinerated.

They [the mob] were demanding that we kill him in front of them, or they'll take him away and kill him themselves, police inspector Ghulam Mohiuddin told the BBC.

Efforts to calm down the crowd failed, leading to some violent clashes between police and the enraged mob.

One policeman said: We were totally outnumbered. There were too many of them and they were hysterical. Eventually, they succeeded in taking him away.”

The victim was believed to be mentally unstable.

The man had no idea what was going on, said a local official.

While he was in our custody, he kept laughing and chanting.

The dead man was not identified, and it was unclear if he was a Muslim or a member of one of Pakistan’s minority Hindus or Christians.

The region in question is home to many madrassas, religious schools, operated by radical Islamists.

Under the penal code of Pakistan (which is officially designated as an Islamic Republic), acts of blasphemy against Islam can be punished by anything up to and including death. (No one in Pakistan has yet been executed for blasphemy, as death sentences have consistently been overturned on appeal).

The blasphemy laws in Pakistan – which are believed to be the strictest in the Muslim world – are a relatively recent phenomenon. When General Zia al-Haq seized power in 1979, he sought to gain support among religious radicals (as well as the conservative middle-class) by accelerating the pace of Islamization and the introduction of strict Sharia laws.

Suspects charged with blasphemy are often killed prior to any investigations or trials, while political figures who speak out against the laws are sometimes targeted for violence.

Last January, in one of the most spectacular killings related to the matter, the former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who criticized the blasphemy laws, was assassinated by his own bodyguard (who was later hailed as a hero).

[The blasphemy law] was designed as an instrument of persecution, said Ali Hasan Dayan, of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Pakistan.

It's discriminatory and abusive.

Pakistan, like many Muslim and Third World countries, has deep schisms in its society -- a wealthy, liberal elite on one side that favors Western ideas on liberty and social freedoms; and extremist reactionary groups on the other side that is committed to removing any ‘stain’ of Westernization.