Supreme Court Ruling Said to Signal Positive Change in Pakistan

Upholding of death sentence for killer of critic of blasphemy laws a ‘strong sign,’ advocates say.

Islamists demonstrate against Supreme Court verdict outside Karachi Press Club. (Online photo by Anwar Abbas)

Islamists demonstrate against Supreme Court verdict outside Karachi Press Club. (Online photo by Anwar Abbas)

LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – A Supreme Court decision to uphold the death sentence for an Islamist who killed Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer because of his objections to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws signals government resolve against Islamic extremism, human rights advocates said.

The high court on Wednesday (Oct. 7) upheld the October 2011 death sentence for Mumtaz Qadri, who as Taseer’s bodyguard shot him to death in Islamabad on Jan. 4, 2011. Qadri said he killed Taseer over the governor’s outspoken opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and his public support for Aasiya Noreen (Asia Bibi), a Christian mother of five wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for blasphemy.

Taseer had visited Noreen in Sheikhupura prison, campaigned for a presidential pardon and called the country’s hard-line blasphemy legislation – which dates from the 1980s Islamist military dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq – a “black law.”

Mumtaz Qadri. (Pakistan Today)

Mumtaz Qadri. (Pakistan Today)

Qadri’s execution likely will be seen as a key moment in the Pakistan’s attempt to combat Islamic extremists following the Dec. 16, 2014 Taliban massacre of more than 130 schoolchildren in Peshawar, which prompted the government to scrap an informal moratorium on the death penalty.

“This is just the beginning,” said Rufus Solomon, a Christian politician from the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). “The Supreme Court decision is a very strong sign that the state is trying to recover the space it ceded to violent extremists.”

Solomon said he hoped the ruling also would reverberate in acquittals in cases of blasphemy accusations motivated by personal rivalries or monetary disputes. Noreen’s case grew out of an argument with her fellow field workers in which anti-Christian prejudice was clearly evident.

“I have a strong feeling that Asia Bibi and all other innocent Christians who have been subjected to the blasphemy laws will be freed by the Supreme Court,” Solomon said.

Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer and head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, said in a statement that upholding Qadri’s murder conviction was a “brave decision” and “the first step in introducing some rational discourse on blasphemy.”

The chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Asma Jahangir, said the ruling “sent a very clear message that the court will not give in to external pressures.”

The court decision runs against avid support for Qadri, whose supporters are calling for the execution of Noreen before the government proceeds with his execution. Public support for Qadri at the time of the murder was so great that the army chief at the time, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, reportedly told Western ambassadors he could not publicly condemn Qadri because too many of his soldiers sympathized with the killer.

Likewise, Taseer’s family struggled to find a mullah to officiate at his funeral. At the same time, Qadri’s lawyers greeted him at his first court hearing with a shower of rose petals.

Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer with Aayisa Noreen (Asia Bibi) as she signs with thumb print her appeal for clemency. (Pakistan Today)

Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer with Aayisa Noreen (Asia Bibi) as she signs with thumb print her appeal for clemency. (Pakistan Today)

Taseer’s daughter, Sanam, said that even though she opposes the death penalty in principle, she would welcome Qadri’s execution because of the cult-like power he enjoys from his prison cell.

“He is treated like a king in prison,” she said. “Women bring him their children for him to teach.”

She said the verdict was “wonderful for the country because it shows there is rule of law.”

Qadri enjoys special prison perks and has recorded best-selling albums of devotional songs. Last year he was found to have incited a prison guard into attempting to kill an elderly British citizen held in the same building for alleged blasphemy.

Dozens of people in recent years have been killed by Pakistani vigilantes and mobs after being accused of blasphemy.

Section 295-C of the blasphemy statutes outlaws derogatory remarks about Muhammad and is punishable by death. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Koran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine.

Defense: Obligated to Kill

Qadri’s defense contended that in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence he was obligated to kill Taseer because the governor had committed blasphemy by criticizing the blasphemy laws, an argument the Supreme Court was compelled to seriously consider.

“We have to look into whether the deceased [Taseer] indeed committed the act of blasphemy or he commented adversely on the effects of the blasphemy law,” observed Justice Dost Mohammad Khan, one of three judges on the Supreme Court bench.

Qadri’s counsel, Mian Nazir Akhtar, noted that none of the other Elite Force personnel (Qadri was a Punjab Police Elite Force Commando) present at the killing of Taseer reacted against Qadri’s action and asserted that “punishing a blasphemer was a religious duty enjoined on everyone.”

Qadri’s lawyer argued that Qadri was only acting in accordance with dictates of the Koran and Sunnah (sayings and acts of Muhammad).

Justice Khan questioned whether the accused had the right to judge on his own and commit murder of someone under his protection, especially when there was little evidence of blasphemy. The justices ruled that Taseer had not committed blasphemy, and that vigilantes have no sanction to kill.

“In any democratic government, the nation has the right to criticize any law made by the parliament because it was made by representatives of the people,” Justice Asif Saeed Khosa wrote. “Will it not instill fear in the society if everybody starts taking the law into their own hands, and deals with sensitive matters such as blasphemy on their own, rather than going to the courts?”

Justice Khan also stressed the need of exercising restraint in blasphemy cases.

“Allowing individuals to deal with such matters on their own is fraught with danger, especially in divided societies like ours, where even Ulemas [bodies of Islamic scholars] are reluctant to offer prayers with members of other schools of thought,” he observed.

Supreme Court Justice a ‘Blasphemer’

The Pakistan Sunni Tehreek (PST), an Islamist religio-political group known to have militant wings, announced that it will file a review petition in the Supreme Court against its ruling.

“The death penalty awarded to Mumtaz Qadri is against sharia [Islamic law] and the Constitution of Pakistan,” PST Chairman Sarwar Ijaz Qadri said in a statement.

In a late-night protest outside the Lahore Press Club on Wednesday (Oct. 7), PST activists shouted chants against the three justices that upheld Qadri’s death sentence.

“Justice Khosa is a blasphemer too, and is liable to be killed because he has convicted a true lover of the prophet,” the mob shouted as police personnel and passersby looked on.

PST leader Zahidur Rashdi told Morning Star News that the government should immediately release “our national hero” and introduce strict Islamic law.

“Because the legal system is un-Islamic, young people become desperate and take the law into their own hands,” he argued, warning that the verdict may cause anarchy in the country “because the followers of the prophet are very upset.”

The Federal High Court in Islamabad March 9 had rejected Qadri’s application against his death sentence but accepted his application to void Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). Voiding the act would have helped the self-confessed killer in escaping the death penalty, but the Supreme Court ruling allowed the government to include the terrorism charges against Qadri.

The Supreme Court also dismissed Qadri’s appeal for a reduction in his sentence. The only thing now standing between Qadri and execution is an appeal for a presidential pardon, which few expect to be granted.

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