In a landmark judgment on 7 October the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) upheld the death sentence of Malik Mumtaz Qadri, 30, who murdered the former Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, a liberal Muslim, on 4 January, 2011.
Qadri, one of Taseer’s official bodyguards from the Elite Force, shot him 27 times with an AK-47 sub-machine gun at Kohsar Market in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, because of Taseer’s views on the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.
In its judgment on Qadri’s appeal against the decision of the Islamabad High Court (IHC), the apex court also allowed the Federation’s appeal seeking the restoration of terrorism charges against the accused.
Liberal Muslims and minority groups welcomed the courageous decision of the Supreme Court’s judges, which affirmed democratic values, including the rule of law, and rejected religious fanaticism in the public sphere.
Human rights activists and minorities have been demanding the repeal of blasphemy laws, as these laws have been widely used as a tool against minorities, especially against Christians and Ahmadis.
Former Governor Taseer was murdered for defending an illiterate and poor Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was convicted and received the death sentence under the blasphemy law. Her appeal is still pending in the Supreme Court. Bibi was arrested in June 2009, after allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad during an argument with her Muslim co-worker. Taseer not only visited her in jail, but sent an appeal to the President, Asif Ali Zardari. Moreover, he publicly called for reforms to the blasphemy laws, which were imposed by military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.
Qadri’s act of violence was unprecedented, as he killed a top political figure in broad daylight for religiously motivated reasons. For many, criticising or challenging blasphemy laws is also an act of blasphemy against Islam, its prophet and the Quran. In their view, this cannot be tolerated, and that person should be killed. Therefore, when the former governor demanded modifications to the law, there were many who quickly declared him a blasphemer who deserved death. After killing Taseer, Qadri, a former police guard and the self-confessed murderer, was revered as a hero by many who felt that he did his religious duty as a true Muslim by killing a blasphemer. He was showered with rose petals by lawyers when he first appeared before the trial court in Islamabad and hailed as a soldier of Islam and the Prophet’s policeman. Over the last few years, during crowded public rallies, his supporters have demanded his unconditional freedom. After the recent court’s judgment, Islamic parties, including Pakistan Sunni Tehreek and Jamaat-e-Ahle Sunnat Pakistan staged a protest rally in Karachi on 9 October and demanded his immediate release.
Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was killed for his criticism of the blasphemy laws, under which Asia Bibi, left, was sentenced to death.Courtesy Open Doors International
During the court’s hearings, many of Qadri’s supporters tried to reach the Supreme Court to pressurise the judges. However, police arrested many people in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, and over 90 were arrested who tried to enter Islamabad’s Red Zone, where the Supreme Court is located.
Qadri’s sentence was first awarded by a judge in an anti-terror court in October 2011. The judge subsequently left the country for fear of his safety. Against the trial court’s decision, Qadri filed an appeal to the Islamabad High Court (IHC), where on 9 March the court upheld the death sentence under the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) but overturned the terrorism charge from the Anti-Terrorism Act’s (ATA) Section 7. Later, Qadri filed an appeal in the country’s highest court of law against the verdict of the IHC. The federal government also challenged the IHC’s verdict to remove terrorism charges and the Supreme Court combined both petitions.
Qadri’s defense counsel, which included two former High Court justices, tried to portray him as a noble Muslim who was carrying out his religious duty to punish a blasphemer who called blasphemy laws “black laws”. Through their arguments, the defense counsel tried to justify a murder in the name of religion and demanded the repeal of their client’s death sentence.
A three-member bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, mainly focused on whether an individual had the authority to assume the role of a judge, jury and executioner after having accused someone of blasphemy.
Justice Khosa observed that press clippings, which were presented in the court against Taseer by the defense counsel, did not provide sufficient evidence that the former governor committed blasphemy.
Justice Khosa was concerned that people could accuse others of blasphemy to settle personal scores. He mentioned the incident of a Christian couple, Shehzad Masih and Shama Bibi, who were burnt alive by a Muslim mob near Lahore on 4 November last year. They were accused of desecrating a copy of the Quran.
“Will it not instill fear in the 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?” Justice Khosa asked.
The court said that no individual had the authority to punish a blasphemer and that criticising the blasphemy law did not amount to blasphemy. The apex court upheld the death sentence and said that Qadri should be executed for shooting Taseer.
The court’s decision is a landmark judgement in the judicial history of Pakistan because it answered some very sensitive questions without any ambiguity. Until now, the religious forces used religious rhetoric to silence those critical of the blasphemy laws.
Although the court’s judgment is a welcome step, now it is the responsibility of the government to take strict actions against those who falsely accuse others under blasphemy laws. It seems unlikely that the present government of Mian Nawaz Sharif will take any measures in this direction, as his party shares the same ideology as religious groups.
“Will it not instill fear in the 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?”
–Justice Asif Saeed Khosa
Extremists have been operating in the country with impunity because religion is the basis of the country’s foundation. Because of that, these people use violence in the name of religion to gain power and intimidate others to accept their religious teachings. Since Taseer’s murder, no Pakistani political leader has had the guts to criticise the legislation.
Generally, the courts’ credibility is not very high when it comes to sensitive cases related to religion. For that reason, the SC’s judgement should be seen as an important step in an Islamic country where liberal Pakistanis are marginalised.
During cases of a religious nature, courtrooms are filled with religious groups who try to pressurise courts to provide judgments in their favour. In an environment where religious intolerance has forged deep roots in Pakistan’s conservative society, and courts are careful when they hear cases of a sensitive nature, the present judgment against Qadri, who is a symbol of religious vigilantism, is heroic.
In blasphemy cases, many lawyers are not willing to represent the accused and judges are loath to hear cases for fear of their personal safety. In that atmosphere, the SC’s decision is significant as it gives a signal that the legal system should not be compromised and the principles of justice should be held without any fear and pressure. Similarly, the verdict displays judicial strength against religious fanaticism and supports free speech.
The court reinstated Qadri’s conviction under anti-terrorism laws that the Islamabad High Court had wrongly set aside. As a result, Qadri cannot now pay blood money to the victim’s family under another Islamic law, the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance, for his release, though his supporters are still publicly offering blood money to Taseer’s family.
Because of the fear of violence, it is impossible to initiate a public debate about the misuse of blasphemy laws, as this act is itself considered blasphemy. Therefore, the current observation is significant as it clearly states that criticism of blasphemy law does not constitute blasphemy. It will encourage debate.
According to a Muslim political analyst, Wajahat Masood, hanging Qadri would send a very strong message to supporters of extremism. However, the government will still be under a lot of pressure not to execute Qadri, as he has a strong lobby behind him.
After the Supreme Court’s judgment, Qadri can ask the president for a pardon. However, Qadri’s lawyers say they will go for a judicial review.
“The SC’s verdict and observations of Justice Asif Saeed Khosa during the hearing are epochal not because they lay down new law but because they help wrestle back public space to discuss our flawed blasphemy laws over which our bigoted brigade has established complete dominion,” wrote Babar Sattar, a lawyer, in his column in The News on 10 October.
Aftab Alexander Mughal is the editor of the Minority Concern magazine and former National Executive Secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of Pakistan.