Pakistanis demand release of killer

Waving flags, shouting slogans and setting fire to tyres, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Pakistan's cities yesterday, expressing anger at the death sentence handed to a police officer for assassinating a provincial governor who wanted to reform the country's draconian blasphemy laws.

Mumtaz Qadri, one of Punjab governor Salman Taseer's bodyguards, was convicted of murder after he shot the governor 27 times in Islamabad in January. There were chilling scenes of celebration after the killing, with many hailing Qadri as a "hero of Islam". He has appealed against his sentence and the judge in the case was forced to take "indefinite leave" for his own safety.

"This death sentence should be stopped," said Fayaz ul Hassan Chauhan, who organised a protest in Qadri's neighbourhood in Rawalpindi. "It is the responsibility of every Muslim to stop blasphemy," he added, as a crowd around him nodded vigorously.

Mr Taseer, 66, had mounted a campaign to release Aasia Noreen, a poor Christian farmhand who became the first woman in the country to face execution after she was falsely accused of making blasphemous remarks.

Human rights campaigners say the blasphemy laws are vaguely worded and often used as a tool of social control. Since the introduction of a sharper clause, the laws are often invoked to settle vendettas, to give militants cover or to persecute minority groups.

In the Muslim neighbourhood of his home city, however, Qadri is considered a hero. When he appeared in court on the day of Mr Taseer's funeral, lawyers showered him with rose petals. Nine months later, walls are daubed with graffiti saluting his "bravery". Children carry posters of him and speak of him in awed tones.

Outside the assassin's home, crowds chanted hymns in his honour yesterday before setting off on their march towards Islamabad. They prefer to call the convicted killer a ghazi, or Islamic fighter. "O, ghazi, when you are taken up to meet the Lord," said a thickly bearded man with moist eyes, "please don't forget about us sinning folk down here!"

In Lahore, 2,000 people came on to the streets. Many shops there, as in Rawalpindi, remained shut after a raft of religious groups called for a "strike". The banned terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, backed the protests.

The sentencing of Qadri, while a tremendous source of relief for Mr Taseer's family, has come at a difficult time. Shahbaz Taseer, one of the governor's sons, was abducted 43 days ago and there has been no contact with his kidnappers, who are reported to be militants in North Waziristan.