Garlands for killer as Punjab leader is buried

Salmaan Taseer, the outspoken Pakistani politician who took a public stand against bigotry and discrimination and paid with his life for doing so, was buried yesterday with state honours amid tight security.

Thousands of people turned out to attend prayers for the governor of Punjab province, before his body was buried in a small cemetery in the city of Lahore. Dozens of close friends and relatives looked on and hugged as his coffin was placed in the dry earth of the Cavalry Ground cemetery.

But even as the 66-year-old politician was being buried and his assassin appeared before a court, a bitter war of words broke out over the killing, highlighting the deep divisions fracturing Pakistani society.

His assassination by a member of his own security outraged politicians and activists who supported his call to scrap controversial blasphemy laws, but others said he should not be mourned as he had insulted Islam.

When Mumtaz Qadri, the 26-year-old police commando accused of killing Mr Taseer, appeared for an initial court hearing, some in the crowd threw rose petals, patted him on the back and even handed him a flower garland.

The accused, who reportedly shouted "God is Great" at the hearing, is due to be taken to an anti-terrorism court later today.

Scholars from a usually moderate group of Sunni Muslims that has opposed proposals to scrap the laws said no one should have sympathy for Mr Taseer.

"More than 500 scholars of the Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat have advised Muslims not to offer the funeral prayers for Governor Salmaan Taseer nor try to lead the prayers," the group said in a statement.

"Also, there should be no expression of grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy."

Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the country's main Islamist political parties, agreed that the assassination at Islamabad's Kohsar Market was justified.

"If the government had removed him from the governorship, there wouldn't have been the need for someone to shoot him," it said.

Rehman Malik, the country's interior minister, told reporters in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, that inquiries were continuing and a number of people, including some of Mr Qadri's relatives, were being questioned.

A key question is why the suspect was apparently able to fire up to 27 bullets at Mr Taseer before he was seized, and whether he was acting alone.

The Associated Press, quoting an unidentified intelligence official, said Mr Qadri claimed during interrogation to have planned the assassination just four days ago when he first learned he would be part of the governor's security detail.

Another question is why Mr Taseer, a leading member of President Asif Ali Zardari's ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), had not been given better protection, particularly as he had received death threats in recent months after publicly opposing the blasphemy laws. A senior PPP politician told CNN that Mr Qadri had been judged unfit for VIP protection duty because of his extremist views as early as 2004.

Mr Taseer, who was appointed governor of the country's most prosperous province in 2008, had been a vocal supporter of Asia Bibi, a Christian farm labourer sentenced to death after she was accused of insulting Islam. Mr Taseer echoed the views of campaigners who said the laws were often used to discriminate against minorities and to settle personal scores.

He was one of a handful of public figures who called for Mrs Bibi to be pardoned and even visited her in jail. Such expressions of support triggered demonstrations across the country. While the PPP, under pressure from religious groups, stepped back from proposals to abolish or at least reform the laws, Mr Taseer did not.

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