By Salman Masood for The New York Times
A court on Saturday sentenced to death an elite police guard who assassinated a leading secular politician he had been charged with protecting, a slaying that sent shockwaves throughout Pakistan and was seen as a clear marker of the growing religious intolerance and extremism in the country.
The news made international headlines not just because of the prominence of the politician killed, Salman Taseer, but because the killer was celebrated by many in Pakistan, including lawyers who showered him with rose petals and garlands at a court appearance.
Judge Syed Pervez Ali Shah announced the sentence for the guard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, in an antiterrorism court at Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi. “Nobody can be given a license to kill on any pretext,” the judge was quoted as saying after the conclusion of the trial, which was held under tight security.
The ruling was unusual in Pakistan; frightened justices in recent years have been cowed into releasing Islamic militants or letting them off with light sentences. The judgment was especially noteworthy in such a high-profile case against a man whose popularity only grew with his confession and defense of the killing on religious grounds.
Mr. Taseer was the governor of Punjab Province and one of the country’s most outspoken opponents of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, which mandate a death sentence for anyone convicted of insulting Islam.
Liberals and rights activists were encouraged by the verdict, but noted that it could be overturned in appeals that can drag on for years.
“Today’s judgment is a positive development whereby norms of justice have prevailed,” said Raza Rumi, a political analyst and columnist in the eastern city of Lahore. “Pakistan cannot be allowed to become a vigilante society, and the state — its judges and prosecutors — need to uphold the law.”
No matter what happens with the case, however, Mr. Taseer’s death cast a pall over discussions of the blasphemy laws — which had become something of a test case for broader debate of how religion and politics mix in Pakistan. That trend continued Saturday. The usually voluble Pakistani press dutifully covered the story, but news broadcasts were mainly devoid of the normal commentary or debate.
“Local media’s muted coverage of the sentence is reflective of the fear factor and the polarization within the society which includes media personnel,” Mr. Rumi said.
Mr. Qadri, 26, was convicted of murder and committing an act of terrorism, and was handed two life sentences.
No date for the execution has been announced, and Mr. Qadri has a right to appeal within seven days. Raja Shuja-ur-Rahman, a lawyer for Mr. Qadri, told the DAWN television channel that an appeal would be filed.
Mr. Qadri killed Mr. Taseer in a hail of bullets on Jan. 4, shooting at close range as Mr. Taseer was getting into his car.
Mr. Taseer, a businessman and a liberal politician, had emerged as a leader in a fight against the blasphemy law, which rights groups say has been used to persecute minorities, especially Christians.
The law was introduced in the 1980s under the military dictatorship of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq as part of a policy of promoting Islam to unite Pakistan’s deeply fractious society.
Mr. Qadri was hailed as a hero by Islamist lawyers, several mainstream politicians and religious leaders.
On Saturday, dozens of supporters of Mr. Qadri gathered outside the jail and chanted slogans against the sentence, while the judge slipped out a back door.
“We will free you! We will die for you!” 20-year-old Mohamemd Aslam was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. Others yelled: “Long live Qadri, long live Qadri!”
“By punishing one Mumtaz Qadri, you will produce a thousand Mumtaz Qadris!” shouted another man.
The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, to which Mr. Taseer belonged, has been accused of distancing itself from the cause of repealing the blasphemy law since the assassination.