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Joseph K. Grieboski

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Qadri Verdict: Rule of Law Still Alive in Pakistan?

Posted: 10/11/11 12:00 PM ET

On Oct. 1, a Pakistan anti-terrorism court sentenced to death Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, the bodyguard who shot and killed Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, early this year.

Qadri was handed two death sentences on two counts of murder and terrorism by Judge Parvez Ali Shah during in-camera proceedings at Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, state-run PTV reported.

Qadri had contended that he killed Taseer as he was a 'murtad' or apostate and had allegedly committed blasphemy by seeking changes in the blasphemy law.

Governor Taseer had called Pakistan's draconian blasphemy law "a black law." In November 2010 a Punjab court sentenced Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, to death allegedly for using blasphemous remarks against the Prophet Muhammad. Taseer visited Bibi in jail and championed her cause, saying that the controversial law had been misused. He had also backed a bill in the country's parliament introduced by Sherry Rehman, a female MP, to amend the law to remove the death penalty for blasphemy charges.

Questions had remained as to whether justice would be sought for Taseer's murder and rule of law upheld in a country known little if any government capacity to maintain rule of law.

The country's mood regarding the murder and the atmosphere around the blasphemy law were demonstrated when, following the assassination, not a single cleric was willing to lead Taseer's funeral prayers, dozens of lawyers showered roses on Qadri when he was first brought to court, and thousands of people demonstrated in his defense while most of the country's politicians could not openly condemn the murder.

Furthermore, Qadri's trial was held up for several weeks, as no prosecutor was willing to take on the case. During initial court appearances, Qadri was championed by lawyers and madrassa students who haled him as a "hero".

Qadri's family went so far as to say that they were very happy that he had carried out the assassination.

Dozens of people gathered outside the prison after the verdict chanting pro-Qadri slogans. "By punishing one Mumtaz Qadri, you will produce a thousand Mumtaz Qadris!" Reuters news agency quoted one man as shouting through a megaphone.

Regardless of one's position on the death penalty, the guilty verdict is a tremendous step forward in democracy and rule of law in Pakistan. Many who follow Pakistan closely feared that the courts would buckle to the overwhelming public opinion and extremist pressure and release Qadri or give him a light sentence.

In many ways, the Qadri case was the litmus test for rule of law in Pakistan. Had the courts sided with public opinion and extremist ideology, it would have been an indication that the government was completely and utterly incapable of upholding justice and rule of law in what is, frankly, an open and shut case.

Qadri had confessed to killing Taseer shortly after the crime. He subsequently confessed to the crime on two more occasions -- when a magistrate recorded his confessional statement and when he was given a questionnaire by the anti-terrorism court judge.

By finding Qadri guilty, the anti-terrorism courts have indicated that there is still hope for rule of law and justice in Pakistan, however slight that hope may be.

This is just a small step, however. Religious and ideological extremism remain powerful forces in Pakistan, gaining followers as well as funds and weapons.

An indication the state of extremism in Pakistan: as news of the death sentence broke, dozens of Qadri's supporters shouted outside the jail, "We will not let you down! We will free you! We will die for you!"

In August, Governor Taseer's son, Shahbaz Taseer, was kidnapped in the upscale Gulberg area of Lahore. No one has claimed responsibility for the abduction, but Taseer's family was threatened several times by the extremists.

No one is sure what the death sentence for Qadri will mean for Shahbaz Taseer's safety, as his whereabouts are still unknown.