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Yesterday, the High Court in Lahore, Pakistan, upheld the murder conviction against self-confessed killer, Mumtaz Qadri, despite significant pressure from Islamist supporters of “blasphemy” laws to free him. The court also overturned his conviction for terrorism.

Mumtaz Qadri on his arrest in 2011

Mumtaz Qadri following his arrest in 2011 (source)

In 2011, Mumtaz Qadri assassinated his own employer, the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. Taseer had criticised ‘blasphemy’ laws, and supported those victimized by ‘blasphemy’ accusations, most famously championing the case of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death for supposedly insulting Islam during an argument with neighbours. Mumtaz Qadri, who was meant to be acting as Taseer’s bodyguard, shot him dead on the streets of Islamabad.

Qadri’s appeal case centered on the argument that extrajudicial killing could be a legitimate response to those criticising “blasphemy” laws or otherwise committing “blasphemy”, in effect that he was only carrying out a death sentence that the court might hand down anyway. In rejecting the appeal, the High Court decision refutes this argument as fallacious – the judges argued that even members of the judiciary did not have a right to personally kill someone even if they were found guilty of a capital crime.

Qadri's supporters protest, Monday

Qadri’s supporters protest, Monday (source)

Qadri, a self-confessed murderer, has been hailed as a hero by some supporters of the ‘blasphemy’ laws, who formed large crowds at his trial. Qadri received support from dozens of lawyers and his appeal was lead by a former senior member of the judiciary. In connection with Monday’s appeal decision, which had to be held behind closed doors, speakers at a rally of supporters threatened “extreme action if the decree was implemented”.

Qadri had been handed a double death sentence for murder and for terrorism, but yesterday’s High Court decision upheld the murder conviction while overturning the terrorism conviction. Given the current moratorium on death sentences for all crimes except terrorism, the decision means Qadri is now likely to remain in prison long-term, and does not face any immediate prospect of execution. However, supporters of Qadri and the “blasphemy” laws are making renewed calls for his release, and to further appeal the ruling at Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), Sonja Eggerickx, comments:

“As a humanist organization, with a concern for human dignity and justice, we object on principle to the death penalty. This objection notwithstanding, it is welcome news that the court has – against the expectations of many – upheld the recognition of Qadri’s crime as murder, and resisted both external pressure to release Qadri, the ever-present threat of vigilantism by his supporters, and the absurd arguments offered in court in his defense and mitigation.

“It remains the case that the murder of people like Taseer, who oppose the malicious and unjust use of ‘blasphemy’ laws, is deeply ideological. Qadri’s murder can be seen as part of a wider movement designed to intimidate and suppress criticism of ‘blasphemy’ laws and accusations, a violent movement which has driven judges into exile and killed those accused of “blasphemy” and their lawyers, and certainly this could be described as a kind of “terrorism”.

However, we understand that under Monday’s decision and given the broader moratorium, there is now no immediate prospect of a death sentence being carried out, and as a side-effect this removes the risk of further inflating Qadri’s status as a kind of “martyr” for blasphemy laws. There is, then, a kind of muddled, but realistic best imitation of justice reflected in this judgement, which can be given a cautious and qualified welcome. As applies anywhere in the world, longer-term we would hope to see the abolition of the death penalty entirely, as well as the abolition of ‘blasphemy’ laws in order to uphold freedom of thought and expression, and of course to continue to bring murderers such as Mumtaz Qadri to justice.

“We hope, though it is an optimistic hope, that even the supporters of Qadri and of Pakistan’s egregious ‘blasphemy’ laws in general, will in time recognise the inherent injustice in extrajudicial targeted killing and vigilante violence.”

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