ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — A Pakistani court on Saturday convicted and sentenced a police officer to death for the killing of a liberal governor earlier this year, a murder that led to fears the country was buckling under the weight of extremism.
The January murder in broad daylight of Punjab provincial governor, Salman Taseer, by one of his police guards was alarming in itself, but what came afterward perhaps even more so: lawyers showered his killer, Mumtaz Qadri, with flowers, thousands demonstrated in his defense and mainstream politicians failed to publicly condemn the killing.
Qadri has told his trial that Taseer deserved to die because of his criticism of Pakistani laws that mandate the death sentence for insulting Islam. Taseer, a member of the country’s ruling party, wanted amendments in the law and had defended a Christian woman sentenced to death under it.
Qadri was convicted and sentenced in an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi close to the capital Islamabad, said three officials at the jail who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. The trial, which began a month after the killing, was held in a prison and was closed to the media.
Under Pakistan law, Qadri can appeal. Death sentences have been rarely carried out in Pakistan in recent years.
Qadri’s main defense argument was that Taseer, a Muslim, had brought on his own killing because of his opposition to the so-called “blasphemy laws.”
One of Qadri’s lawyers, Raja Shuja-ur-Rehman, said the defense would appeal the verdict.
“We are not satisfied with this ruling, and we will file an appeal against it,” he said.
As the news broke, more than 100 Muslim extremists protested outside the jail.
“We will free you! We will die for you!” shouted 20-year-old Mohamemd Aslam. Others yelled: “Long live Qadri, long live Qadri!”
Pakistan, whose 180 million people are almost 95 percent Muslim, has seen an alarming spread in violent Islamist extremism since 2007. It has been especially hard to counter because some of the groups — and the extremist ideology they spread — once enjoyed or continue to have state backing or sanction.
The security forces have fought back, but thousands of government officials, Christians, Shiites and scores of police and soldiers have been killed in assassinations and suicide bombings. The wave of terror has alarmed the West, which is also concerned about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
Taseer was a wealthy, polarizing figure, but one of few Pakistani officials to consistently oppose extremism. Two weeks after he was killed, the only Christian government minister in the country was gunned down, also in Islamabad and also because of his criticism of the blasphemy laws.
The laws are held dear by Pakistan’s powerful Islamist clergy and political parties, which fiercely oppose any efforts to change them. But they are also frequently abused to target Christians caught up in business and other disputes with Pakistani Muslims.
Police do not need evidence to arrest someone under the laws, meaning people are frequently locked up for months or years on the basis of a single accusation.
Since Taseer’s killing, the government has dropped any talk of modifying the laws.
Members of Taseer’s family have continued speaking out against militancy, and in August, Taseer’s adult son was abducted from his car in the eastern city of Lahore. The son’s fate remains unknown and militants are considered likely suspects in that abduction.
Violent attacks by militants, especially against Pakistani security forces, are routine.
A roadside bomb on Saturday targeted a police van in northwestern Pakistan, killing four newly recruited officers and wounding 11 others, said Fareed Khan, a local government officer.
The attack happened in the town of Shagai in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Khan did not say who was behind the attack, but Islamist militants have claimed responsibility for such attacks in the past.