An anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi on Saturday sentenced Mumtaz Qadri to death for murdering Punjab governor Salman Taseer early this year.
The governor of Pakistan’s most populous province, a moderate Muslim and a member of President Asif Ali Zardari’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), had appealed publicly for Zardari to pardon Asia Bibi, the first woman to be sentenced to death under the country’s notorious blasphemy laws.
Bibi, a Christian mother of five convicted of “blaspheming” Mohammed, remains on death row.
Taseer’s public stance brought Islamists onto the streets to demand that the government not pardon Bibi or tamper with the laws. A radical cleric offered a reward to anyone who killed Bibi, and Taseer received death threats.
On January 4 Qadri shot Taseer multiple times outside an Islamabad restaurant, telling police afterwards that he did so because of the governor’s opposition to the blasphemy law.
Following the assassination some 500 Muslim scholars issued a statement giving Qadri the honorary title “Lover of the Prophet, Commander of the Jihad Fighters.” They warned all clerics not to express sympathy for Taseer’s death or participate in his funeral.
At Qadri’s early court appearances, lawyers demonstrated their approval of his action by showering him with rose petals. Weeks later another vocal critic of the blasphemy laws and supporter of Bibi, federal minister for minorities affairs Shahbaz Bhatti – a Christian – was shot dead by gunmen who left pamphlets accusing him of blasphemy.
During his an in-camera trial in a high-security prison, Qadri in late September presented the court with a statement about his actions. According to his lawyer, the 40-page document cited 11 verses from the Qur’an, 28 quotes from revered writings about Mohammed, and references from a number of prominent Muslim jurists on the subject of blasphemy.
On Saturday, Judge Pervez Ali Shah convicted Qadri and sentenced him to death. He has seven days to appeal.
The Nation of Lahore said the judge slipped out the back door after handing down the verdict.
Sherry Rehman, a former cabinet minister, voiced concern for the judge’s safety and called for government protection. Rehman herself faced death threats earlier this year for challenging the blasphemy laws, and withdrew a bill designed to amend the law after failing to win the support of her PPP party.
‘Taseer invited death’
News of the verdict sparked protests in major Pakistani cities, including the Punjab capital Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
Protestors burnt tires and blocked roads for hours, and in Rawalpindi a monument for assassinated former prime minister and PPP leader Benazir Bhutto was damaged.
The protests were organized by various religious political parties and organizations, mostly representing Pakistan’s largest Muslim faction, the Sunni Barelvi movement. Barelvis are sometimes viewed in the West as moderates because they oppose al-Qaeda, but they hold extreme views regarding shari’a and blasphemy towards Mohammed.
Protest leaders demanded that the verdict be overturned and threatened nationwide disruptions and strikes.
Hailing Qadri as a “hero,” leaders of one Barelvi political party, Sunni Tehreek, proposed that the party pays Taseer’s family compensation in return for the convicted man’s freedom.
One Sunni Tehreek leader stressed that this should not, however, be seen as “blood money” – an arrangement permitted under shari’a – since as a “blasphemer” the governor was not eligible.
A theme running through many of the protests was that Qadri had been forced to act to protect Islam since the authorities had not done their duty and taken legal steps against Taseer for his “blasphemous” conduct.
“Mr. Taseer had himself invited death by issuing blasphemous statements and Qadri did not deserve death sentence in this case,” Jamaat-i-Islami, an Islamist political party, said in a statement.
If the government did not implement the blasphemy law, Sunni Tehreek leader Shahid Ghori told one rally, then thousands of Qadris would emerge.
“If the state does not take action against people who use derogatory remarks against sacred personalities then obviously people would take the law into their hands for their love for them,” The News quoted Ghori as saying in Karachi. “Qadri had set this example for rest of the people.”
Even some lawyers hedged their responses to the outcome of the trial.
Asghar Ali Gill, president of the Lahore High Court Bar Association, told Pakistan Today that Qadri should not have taken the law into his own hands. But as a Muslim, Gill said, he believed blasphemers deserved the punishment of death.
Some cautious voices did welcome the verdict.
Fakharuddin Chaudhry, a PPP spokesman in Punjab, told a press conference that the judgment would discourage “extremist elements,” and described Taseer as a true Muslim.
There was no official response from Zardari or the central government.
(In a Washington Post op-ed Saturday focusing on strained U.S.-Pakistan relations, Zardari referred to Taseer’s murder – as well as those of Bhatti and Bhutto, Zardari’s wife – attributing their deaths to “an ideology that feeds on brutality and coercion.”)
Last month Taseer’s son, businessman Shahbaz Taseer, was kidnapped in Lahore. His whereabouts remain unknown although Punjab’s law minister said Saturday an investigation was making progress. Supporters have voiced concern that the abduction was related to his father’s murder, as the family had been receiving death threats from extremist groups.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent statutory body that advises the executive and legislative branches, has urged the U.S. government since 2002 to designate Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” for egregious violations of religious freedom.
Each year the State Department has overruled the recommendation.