Mumtaz Qadri after his arrest following the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011.
Mumtaz Qadri after his arrest following the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011. (Photo: courtesy of Dawn)

Pakistan has executed the murderer of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who had justified the 2011 assassination upon Taseer’s desire for reforms in the blasphemy law, and for his support of Asia Noreen, a Christian woman condemned to death for blasphemy.

Mumtaz Qadri was hanged early today (Monday,  29 Feb.), after his appeal to the President for mercy had been dismissed.

Pakistan’s Christians have been on tenterhooks, waiting to see if the President would let Qadri off his death penalty, as Muslim religious and political parties threatened a backlash if Qadri was executed. Sporadic riots and protests broke out 29 Feb.; A highway was closed for a time, cars and buses set on fire and effigies of the Prime Minister burned.

In January after the appeal on behalf of Qadri went to the President Mamnoon Hussain, Hussain’s family was confined to the Presidency, and Hussain’s security was increased. Three days before Qadri’s execution, two drivers from the President’s convoy were arrested and moved to an undisclosed location for interrogation.

Supreme Court lawyer Saif-ul-Malook, the prosecutor in Qadri’s trial, and who currently represents Asia Bibi’s appeal to the Supreme Court, told World Watch Monitor that Qadri’s execution shows Pakistan is committed to fight terrorism.

“It was very difficult to imagine if Pakistan would be able to follow the due course of justice, but the country has shown its will,” he said. “The execution has strengthened the fight against extremism.”

Taseer’s son, Shaan Taseer, posted on Facebook: “A principle has been upheld. I commend the judiciary, the President and the police for staying the course and doing their duty. And I thank them for honouring his memory. Long live Pakistan”.

Another son, Shahbaz Taseer, was abducted in Lahore in August 2011; his whereabouts are still unclear.

In March 2011, just months after Taseer was gunned down, Pakistan’s Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the cabinet’s only Christian, was shot dead by gunmen who ambushed his car.

Mumtaz Qadri had been hailed across the country as a hero after he killed Salman Taseer in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, on 4 Jan., 2011. Twenty-six-year old Qadri was a member of the governor’s security detail when he shot him 27 times – without being stopped by other police officers present. Then he threw down his AK-47 sub-machine gun and reportedly pleaded to be arrested so that he could explain his intentions – that, essentially, his religion compelled him to kill Taseer, a ‘blasphemer’.

Noreen, widely known as Asia Bibi, had been arrested in the summer of 2009 for allegedly speaking ill against the Prophet of Islam, and sentenced to death in November 2010. After Pope Benedict XVI pleaded for her release, Taseer, a business tycoon and serving governor of the largest province in Pakistan, went to meet her in prison and had her sign an appeal for mercy to the President.

The religious right in Pakistan carried out massive protests, demanding that Noreen should not be pardoned for any reason. Taseer had also made headlines for demanding an amendment to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Only four days before his murder, Taseer tweeted:

“I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing”

Taseer’s body was flown from Islamabad to Lahore, his hometown, for his funeral but his family struggled to find a cleric, after more than 500 religious scholars issued an Islamic decree that it was unlawful to say funeral prayers for Taseer. The top official cleric too backed off at the last moment from offering prayers. Taseer’s body was buried amid tight security, while, when Qadri was presented in the court, thousands showered him with rose petals and more than 2,000 lawyers were ready to represent him for free. The trial judge, Pervez Ali Shah, who convicted Qadri in October 2011, was sent to Saudi Arabia for fear of his life after he pronounced the death penalty.

The Supreme Court on 7 October 2015 upheld the decision of the trial court and the Islamabad High Court, and rejected the appeal against Qadri’s death sentence. Qadri’s defense counsels included renowned lawyers including former Lahore High Court (LHC) Chief Justice Khawaja Sharif and senior LHC Justice Mian Nazeer Akhtar. They had maintained that because the governor called the blasphemy laws “black law”, Qadri had the right to kill Taseer.

On 6 Oct., Supreme Court Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, discussing the case, remarked that “criticizing blasphemy laws does not amount to committing blasphemy” and that Qadri had no legal justification to take the law into his own hands.

That Supreme Court decision was welcomed by liberal sections of Pakistan society as a bold step, and as justice taking its due course, but conservative sections saw it as an influence of the West over Pakistan; several of them held Qadri to be a living saint.

The assassin’s prosecutor Malook, however, saw the judgment as insufficient without fully addressing the legal questions framed to be discussed in the Supreme Court. One of the five questions was:

Even if [Qadri] entertained an impression about commission of blasphemy by [Taseer] and even if [Qadri] was motivated by any religious sentiment in that regard, still could [Qadri]  kill [Taseer] at a time when he was performing the duties of a guard, and was performing official functions, wearing an official uniform, using an official weapon and possessing officially supplied bullets?

The detailed Supreme Court judgment instead discussed the point that Qadri had acted on hearsay:

[Qadri] had never claimed that he had himself heard or read the Asia Bibi-related utterances attributed to Salman Taseer, he had never claimed that he had tried to get his information about commission of the offence of blasphemy by Mr. Salman Taseer verified in any manner whatsoever. He had acted …on the basis of nothing but hearsay.

The judgment began with the following words:

“Almighty Allah has ordained in the Holy Qur’an that, upon receipt of a news or information, men of faith ought to ascertain correctness of such news or information before they may act upon the same, and that harm may be avoided if such news or information is investigated in the first place.”

Commenting on the argument given to explain the judgment, Malook said “The gravity of the matter we can imagine by the fact that the apex court has not fully discussed the five questions it framed for consideration.”

Noreen already has spent six years in prison. Her appeal in the Lahore High Court was rejected in October 2014, but the judges identified a technical loophole in the blasphemy law. In July 2015, Noreen was allowed to take her appeal against her death penalty to Pakistan’s Supreme Court in Islamabad; her counsel Saif-ul-Malook said that this Court would soon begin hearing it. He sounded confident that the evidence against Noreen ‘is not foolproof’ and that he was hopeful he could ‘bring her out of prison’.