Death sentence upheld over 'blasphemy' killing of Pakistan governor

Islamabad High Court dismisses appeal by Mumtaz Qadri
A Pakistani court Monday upheld the death sentence for the killer of a politician who sought blasphemy law reform, but struck out a terrorism conviction, making it unlikely he will be executed soon.

The Islamabad High Court dismissed an appeal against the death sentence by Mumtaz Qadri, a former police bodyguard who shot dead Punjab governor Salman Taseer in Islamabad in 2011.

Qadri admitted shooting Taseer, saying he objected to the politician's calls to reform Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws, which can carry the death penalty.

Judges Noor-ul-Haq Qureshi and Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui dismissed the appeal over the murder charge.

But they also set aside Qadri's conviction on terrorism charges, which means it is highly unlikely he will be sent to the gallows any time soon.

Pakistan lifted a moratorium on executions in December after Taliban gunmen massacred more than 150 people at a school — but only in terror-related cases.

Authorities have hanged 24 prisoners since December, all convicted of terror crimes, but the moratorium remains in force for those sentenced to death on normal criminal charges.

Qadri's lawyers drew on Islamic texts to argue that he was justified in killing Taseer, saying that by criticizing the blasphemy law the politician was himself guilty of blasphemy.

The court rejected their case, saying in their written judgment that "from whatever angles it is considered, neither the Islamic law nor the law of the land gives any justification to the act of the accused".

Terror charge struck down

In striking down the terrorism conviction, the judges said it had not been proved that Qadri had created a "sense of fear and sense of insecurity" in society when he shot Taseer 28 times outside a cafe.

Qadri's lawyer, Mian Nazeer, welcomed the ruling on the terrorism charges.

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Muslim Pakistan and Qadri has been hailed as a hero by many conservatives eager to drown out any calls to soften the legislation.

At his original trial, Qadri was showered with rose petals by some lawyers. His appeal team included two judges, including the former chief justice of Lahore High Court.

I.A. Rehman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan voiced surprise at the terror ruling.

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"If hitting a governor in broad daylight with automatic weapons is not terrorism then what is?" he said.

With the Qadri case "we have accepted their right to violence," Rehman said.

"This has (an) effect on quite a sizeable population, especially on some members of the bar and judiciary who believe that it's a right of a Muslim to kill another Muslim" whom they accuse of blasphemy, he added.

Around 150 activists from the conservative religious group Sunni Tehreek rallied outside the court on Monday to support Qadri, carrying flags and portraits of him.

Nazeer insisted his client was a hero, not a terrorist.

"Qadri did not commit terrorism, he sacrificed his life to uphold (the) honor of the prophet," he said.

Even if Pakistan were to restart executions in non-terror cases, executing someone convicted of murdering a "blasphemer" would risk a backlash from hardline religious groups — and even more moderate public opinion. AFP

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