(CNSNews.com) – Pakistan on Monday hanged a bodyguard who, invoking the Qur’an, shot dead the senior politician he was paid to protect – a provincial governor whom he accused of blaspheming Islam.
Protests erupted in several cities in response to the news that Mumtaz Qadri had been hanged.
Qadri’s 2011 murder of Punjab governor Salman Taseer turned a spotlight onto the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, and onto a society many of whose members viewed the killer as a hero.
Taseer, a moderate Muslim, had appealed for the country’s then-President Asif Ali Zardari to pardon Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who became the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Bibi, who was convicted of “blaspheming” Mohammed, remains on death row five years later.
Taseer’s support for Bibi triggered angry protests by Islamists, and a radical cleric offered a reward to anyone who killed Bibi. For his part, the governor began to receive death threats.
In early January 2011, Qadri shot Taseer 28 times outside an Islamabad restaurant, before telling police he acted because of the governor’s opposition to the blasphemy law.
Around 500 Muslim scholars then issued a statement giving Qadri the honorary title “Lover of the Prophet, Commander of the Jihad Fighters.” The statement warned all Muslim clerics not to voice condolences for the slain governor and not to participate in his funeral.
At Qadri’s early court appearances, lawyers showered him with rose petals, hailing him as a hero.
Several weeks later, another outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws and supporter of Bibi, federal minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti – a Christian – was shot dead by gunmen who left pamphlets accusing him, too, of blasphemy.
During Qadri’s trial, he delivered a statement about his actions – a 40-page document citing 11 verses from the Qur’an, 28 quotes from hadiths – sayings or traditions ascribed to Mohammed – as well as references from a number of prominent Muslim jurists on the subject of blasphemy.
In October 2011 he was convicted by an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi, and sentenced to death.
Last October a lengthy appeal process came to an end when the Supreme Court upheld Qadri’s conviction and penalty, and also overturned an earlier High Court verdict ruling that Taseer’s murder was not an act of terrorism – paving the way for his execution on Monday.
Many of Qadri’s most ardent supporters have been religious political parties and organizations representing the country’s largest Muslim faction, the Sunni Barelvi movement.
Barelvis are sometimes viewed in the West as moderates because they oppose al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but they hold extreme views regarding shari’a and blasphemy towards Mohammed.
Christians and other religious minorities have frequently been targeted by opponents wielding blasphemy laws, one of which (section 295-C) states that, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death.”
Another section, 295-B, carries punishment of up to life imprisonment for defiling the Qur’an, while section 295-A outlaws “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”
One section, 298-A, even outlaws actions or remarks that defile any of Mohammed’s dozen wives, his relatives or “companions,” with a conviction carrying a prison term of three years, a fine, or both.
Pakistani leaders have spoken out cautiously against abuses of the blasphemy laws, although none has risked angering radicals by amending them, let alone considering calls for their repeal.
Since 2002 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has been calling on the State Department to designate Pakistan – a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid – as a “country of particular concern” under U.S. law for religious abuses.
Designation would allow the federal government to use sanctions or other measures designed to encourage governments to stop violating religious freedom or condoning abuses.
The State Department has overruled the recommendation each year.