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20 Are Hacked and Beaten to Death at Pakistan Shrine

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The men and women arrived late on Saturday at a Sufi shrine in a village in central Pakistan. Followers of a self-described mystic, the pilgrims were accustomed to rituals in which they received spiritual guidance and sometimes removed their clothes to be cleansed of their sins.

Instead, the Pakistani police said on Sunday, they were given an intoxicating drink and then beaten with batons and hacked with knives, leaving 20 of them dead and four others injured.

After the massacre, the police said they had arrested the shrine’s custodian, Abdul Waheed, 50. Mr. Waheed, the authorities said, admitted luring the devotees to the site about 12 miles from Sargodha in Punjab Province, and carrying out the killings with the help of at least two associates.

An injured woman who managed to escape the attack ran and reported it to the authorities, officials said. The victims’ bodies, which had been stripped of clothing, bore the marks of torture, the police said.

“Sixteen men and four women were found murdered,” said Liaqut Ali Chatta, a senior district official.

The motive for the killings was not immediately clear, but officials said they were investigating whether it had to do with control of the shrine. Information about possible criminal charges was not immediately available.

Mr. Waheed told the authorities that he had killed the devotees at the shrine to Ali Muhammad Gujjar, the self-described mystic, in self-defense because he believed they planned to poison him.

Mr. Waheed also said that Mr. Gujjar, a relatively obscure mystic who died two years ago, had been poisoned by a group of devotees. Mr. Gujjar’s followers turned his grave into the shrine where the massacre occurred.

The devotees were Muslims of the Barelvi sect, who generally revere shrines and follow the teachings of people they deem to be saints and mystics. In rural areas, poor devotees seek not only spiritual guidance, but also cures for diseases, in rituals performed by mystics and shrine custodians.

Mr. Waheed, a former government employee who used to give sermons at the shrine, claims to be the spiritual heir to Mr. Gujjar. The rituals he performed were said to cure diseases and cleanse devotees of sin.

Those practices included beating devotees with batons after asking them to remove their clothes. Mr. Waheed would set the clothes on fire during the rituals, officials said.

One of those killed was Asif Ali Gujjar, Mr. Gujjar’s son, and police officials said the killings may have been related to disagreements over control of the shrine.

“There are reports that the accused had an issue with Asif over the custody of the shrine,” Mr. Chatta, the senior district official, said. “Locals say that Asif claimed he is the rightful heir of the shrine, being the son of Ali Muhammad Gujjar.”

Officials said that the people who went to the shrine Saturday night were given an intoxicating drink before they were tortured, raising the possibility that the killings were premeditated.

Malik Ahmed Khan, a spokesman for the provincial Punjab government, said there had been no previous complaints about the shrine or the practices there.

“Only after this incident, people from the surrounding area told police that they used to hear screams coming from the shrine” Mr. Khan said. “Locals said that the devotees were beaten as part of a ritual,” he added. “The shrine was always crowded by drug addicts and people who were under the influence.”

The chief minister of Punjab Province, Shahbaz Sharif, has ordered an inquiry into the killings and has announced that the families of those who were killed would be compensated, according to Salman Sufi, an aide to the chief minister.

“The practices at shrines include money donations, jewelry and gifts in return of a pat of blessing from the custodians,” Mr. Sufi said. “Some guardians are appointed after an inner power struggle no less than those on the lines of Cosa Nostra,” he added, referring to the Sicilian Mafia.

He said that the custodians of many shrines cultivated relationships with prominent local political figures to increase their influence and, in return for votes, receive protection.

“There have been cases in which unknowns are granted the status of sainthood and their burial places declared shrines, merely for the purpose of donation collection,” Mr. Sufi said. “Large sums of money are then collected and used on food, clothing, processions and, when an illicit custodian is involved, on drugs, women and alcohol.”

He called for proper regulations to be put in place to control shrine custodians in the country.