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Pakistan court upholds death sentence on Punjab governor's killer

Case may set precedent for ending misuse of controversial blasphemy laws, observers say

Pakistan court upholds death sentence on Punjab governor's killer

In this photograph taken in January 2011, Mumtaz Qadri is escorted by police as he leaves a court in Islamabad a day after the assassination of Salman Taseer. A Supreme Court ruling on Oct. 7 upheld the death penalty verdict rendered against Qadri. (Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP)

Religious minorities in Pakistan have hailed a Supreme Court ruling upholding the death sentence for a former Elite Force guard who gunned down Salmaan Taseer, the Punjab governor who had offered his support to a Catholic woman on death row.

A three-judge bench on Oct. 7 rejected the appeal of Mumtaz Qadri, who was sentenced to death in October 2011 for assassinating Taseer for his opposition to the country's controversial blasphemy laws.

Qadri was working as Taseer's bodyguard at the time of the assassination.

Days before his murder in an Islamabad market in January 2011, the governor had visited Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman on death row for blasphemy — a charge she denies.

"Can the accused be given the right to judge on his own cause and commit murder in uniform of a person who was under his protection, especially when there is no evidence of him having committed blasphemy, save a few press clippings," Justice Dost Khosa said.

In any democratic government, people have the right to criticize any law made by parliament, he said.

"Will it not instill fear in society if everybody starts taking the law in their own hands and dealing with sensitive matters such as blasphemy on their own rather than going to the courts," the judge said, according to local press.

Father Emmanuel Yousuf, national director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a rights body of the Catholic Church in Pakistan, said it was good to see sense prevail.

"The law has taken its course and justice has been served. One who commits murder for whatever reason should be held accountable for his actions," he said.

"Gov. Taseer always stood for what he thought was right. He was convinced Asia Bibi was innocent," he said.

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"The ruling has set a good precedent, but a notable change regarding the misuse of blasphemy laws will take place only if the government shows some resolve," Father Yousuf said.

Christians in Pakistan say blasphemy laws are open to misuse and are often used to attack them through false allegations.

"We respect every law. Our only contention has always been to prevent the misuse and abuse of blasphemy laws because once one is accused of blasphemy, it takes years for an acquittal," Father Yousuf said.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," he added.

Naveed Chaudhry, head of the Pakistan Minority Alliance, a political party representing minorities, also welcomed the Supreme Court ruling.

"People who take the law into their own hands and carry out murders in the name of Islam will be discouraged by the ruling," he said.

"The dangerous trend of mob violence and a general sense of impunity witnessed in recent years against minorities on false allegations of blasphemy will only stop if such elements are brought to justice," he added.

A lot needs to be done to promote tolerance and religious harmony in Pakistan, he said.

Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic former federal minister, was also assassinated for speaking out against blasphemy, he noted.

Taseer's family also welcomed the judgment.

"Landmark judgment by brave Justice Khosa. We have gutsy and honorable lawyers and judges in Pakistan," Shehrbano Taseer, a daughter of the slain governor, wrote on Twitter.

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