Pakistan protests at assassin's death sentence

The country's blasphemy laws continue to provoke murder and mayhem

A court in Pakistan has passed the death penalty on the bodyguard who assassinated a high-profile provincial politician after he called for reform of the country's controversial blasphemy laws. In response, supporters of the convicted man, Mumtaz Qadri, immediately took to the streets, to denounce the decision.

The anti-terrorism court, located inside a prison in Rawalpindi and which the media was not permitted to enter, handed down two death sentences, for murder and for terrorism, after convicting Qadri of shooting dead Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, earlier this year. "The court has awarded my client death," one of Qadri's lawyers told Agence France-Presse.

The bodyguard, who had been assigned to Mr Taseer's protection team, shot the 66-year-old politician as he returned to his car after a lunch meeting at a café in Islamabad, spraying a volley of more than 20 rounds at him from an automatic weapon. He subsequently told both his interrogators and the court that he believed the politician deserved to die after he had tried to save the life of a Christian woman, Aasia Noreen, who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy. Qadri claimed Mr Taseer was himself guilty of blasphemy.

As with the killing of Mr Taseer, so the sentencing of Qadri is likely to be an episode that exposes sharp and ugly divisions within Pakistani society. While members of the country's minority communities, as well as its small constituency of liberals, were stunned by the assassination, many conservatives celebrated the murder, saying he had deserved to die. When Qadri was first brought before a court nine months ago, some lawyers showered him with flower petals.

The government, which had planned to reform the blasphemy laws, hurriedly dropped the proposals.

Yesterday, scores of the killer's supporters again took to the streets in Rawalpindi, chanting and burning tyres. Additional police were deployed to try to ensure order. Members of the conservative Sunni Tehreek, a religious organisation, waved flags. According to Reuters, outside the city's Adiala Jail, where the hearing overseen by Judge Pervez Ali Shah took place, one man with a megaphone shouted: "By punishing one Mumtaz Qadri, you will produce a thousand Mumtaz Qadris."

Mr Taseer had called for an overhaul of the blasphemy laws, first introduced during the days of British rule and tightened as part of an Islamisation drive under General Zia-ul-Haq. He lent his support to activists who said the laws were increasingly being abused and were being used to target minorities and settle personal scores. After Aasia Noreen, commonly known as Aasia Bibi, was convicted and sentenced to death last year, he visited her in jail, north of Lahore, and said he would fight to have her pardoned. Mrs Noreen, a farm labourer with two children, has always denied saying anything blasphemous against Islam.

Following Mr Taseer's death, the Pakistan Peoples Party-led government quickly shelved a draft proposal to overhaul the laws. The draft's author, Sherry Rehman, a member of parliament, was forced to lie low for her own safety. In March, just two months after Mr Taseer had been gunned down, the country's minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who had also called for the law to be reformed, was also shot dead in the capital. The Taliban claimed responsibility for his killing.

"In the end, Salmaan Taseer was a victim of the abuse and intolerance the blasphemy laws nurture and which he tried to mitigate," Ali Dayan Hasan, of Human Rights Watch, which has campaigned against the laws, said last night. "It is as important today as it has been at any time in the past that the Pakistani government and judiciary find the spine to repeal this obnoxious instrument of abuse. Until that day, the state remains party to the obscene discrimination such laws seek to dignify with legal cover."

A considerable question mark remains as to whether the government will proceed with the sentence on Qadri. He has a week to appeal.

"I don't think there is anyone who seriously believes that this sentence will be carried out," said Farzana Shaikh, a scholar attached to Chatham House and the author of Making Sense of Pakistan. "Remember Omar Saeed Sheikh, the killer of Daniel Pearl? He's untouchable, as I suspect Qadri will be, too. This government is simply not prepared to countenance the high political costs involved in seeing it through."

Though Mr Taseer's family yesterday declined to comment, since his murder his relatives have been outspoken in defending his reputation and demanding justice in the case. They have also had more turmoil and anguish to deal with: in August the late governor's son, Shahbaz Taseer, was abducted by gunmen in Lahore. He is still missing.

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