Islamabad, Oct 7 – A former police bodyguard revered as a hero by Pakistani conservatives for killing a politician who criticised the country’s blasphemy laws has had his death sentence upheld.
In ordinary circumstances there would never be any doubt about which way the supreme court decision would go: Mumtaz Qadri is unrepentent at having shot dead Salmaan Taseer, then governor of Punjar, as he left a restaurant in a busy Islamabad market in January 2011. But moderates have claimed the ruling is a sign of a change in official attitudes towards religious extremism.
Salmaan Taseer murder case harks back to 1929 killing of Hindu publisher
Many Pakistanis argue Mumtaz Qadri should be regarded as a national hero like Ilm-Deen, who knifed the publisher of a commentary on the prophet Muhammad’s life
In the months before his murder, Taseer had sparked anger among religious conservatives by taking up the cause of Asia Bibi, a poor Christian woman who had been sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad.
Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer and head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, hailed the upholding of Qadri’s conviction for murder as a “brave decision” and “the first step in introducing some rational discourse on blasphemy”.
The only thing now standing between Qadri and execution is an appeal for a presidential pardon, which few expect to be granted.
Qadri’s execution will likely be seen as a key moment in the dramatic hardening of the state’s attitude towards extremists following the Taliban massacre of more than 130 schoolboys in Peshawar last year, which prompted the government to scrap an informal moratorium on the death penalty.
Public support for Qadri was so great that the army chief at the time of the murder, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, reportedly told western ambassadors he could not publicly condemn Qadri because too many of his soldiers sympathised with the killer.
Such was the controversy around Taseer that his family struggled to find a mullah to officiate at his funeral. Qadri on the other hand was greeted by lawyers at his first court hearing with a shower of rose petals.
As with other cases involving Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, Bibi was convicted on the basis of allegations made by women in her village with whom she had been involved in a dispute.
Taseer, a liberal-minded business tycoon from Lahore, visited her in prison, campaigned for a presidential pardon and called the country’s hardline blasphemy legislation – which dates from the 1980s Islamist military dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq – a “black law”..
Qadri enjoys special prison perks and has recorded best-selling albums of devotional songs. Last year he was found to have incited a prison guard into attempting to kill an elderly British citizen held in the same building for alleged blasphemy.
His appeal hearings at the Islamabad high court attracted large crowds of banner-waving supporters from the country’s majority Barelvis, a community that prior to Taseer’s killing was seen by many western analysts as a bulwark against religious extremism.
Qadri also attracted some of the country’s most senior lawyers to his defence team, including two former judges. But three chief justices this week rejected arguments that Qadri had the right to take the law into his own hands, or that merely criticising blasphemy laws constitutes an insult against Islam.
Legal analysts said it was significant that the supreme court rejected the lower court’s decision to overturn Qadri’s conviction under the country’s terrorism legislation, which would have reduced the matter to regular statute law.
That would have relieved the state of the final decision on whether to execute Qadri and led to Taseer’s family being pressured to forgive Qadri under controversial “blood money” provisions.
Taseer’s daughter Sanam said she was against the death penalty in principle but that she would welcome the death of Qadri because of the cult-like power he enjoys from his prison cell. “He is treated like a king in prison,” she said. “Women bring him their children for him to teach.”
She said the verdict was “wonderful for the country because it shows there is rule of law”.
Zahid ur Rashidi, a religious scholar and supporter of Qadri, said the government should immediately release “our national hero” and introduce strict religious law.
“Because the legal system is un-Islamic, young people become desperate and take the law into their own hands,” he said.
In a country where Islamic extremists once operated with near impunity, in recent months the state’s attitude towards them has hardened dramatically.
In July Malik Ishaq, former leader of one of Pakistan’s most lethal anti-Shia terror groups, was killed in an apparently stage-managed police shootout. Several notorious clerics have also been arrested.
Mosharraf Zaidi, an analyst who has written angst-laden newspaper columns arguing that the Qadri-Taseer case showed the country was failing to confront its demons, said “Pakistan in 2015 now feels dramatically different”.
“We are not out of the woods yet, but the supreme court decision is a very strong sign the state is trying to recover the space it ceded to violent extremists,” he said.