ISLAMABAD: In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of Pakistan displayed judicial strength and denied the appeal of Mumtaz Qadri, upholding the death sentence for the killer of Salmaan Taseer. Qadri, a former commando of the Punjab Elite Force, assassinated Punjab’s popular Governor Taseer on January 4th, 2011 in Islamabad, following the Governor’s call for reform of the country’s controversial blasphemy law.
“The criminal appeal filed by the convict is dismissed,” the Supreme Court ruling states, “The conviction and sentence by the trial court are restored.”
The apex court’s ruling will be the final ruling on this case, and follows similar verdicts of lower courts. The original death sentence was awarded by an anti-terrorism court, and upheld partly by the Islamabad High Court. The IHC decision stated, “It is amazing to note that the appellant [Mumtaz Qadri] took protections and rights guaranteed by the constitution but deprived deceased [Salmaan Taseer] from all constitutional guarantees.” The Islamabad High Court maintained the death penalty on grounds of murder, but struck down the charge of terrorism.
Qadri’s legal team availed their right to appeal to the Supreme Court whose decision reaffirmed the original verdict on grounds of both murder and terrorism.The decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the punishment for Qadri is a contrast to the images of lawyers garlanding the assassin in the wake of the Governor’s death.
In this milestone decision, the Supreme Court declares vigilante justice has no role in a civilised society. “If everyone starts punishing others, who have in their opinion committed blasphemy, then this society will disintegrate,” observed Justice Asif Saeed Khosa. Justice (Retired) Mian Nazir Akhtar served as Qadri’s legal counsel and argued that punishing a blasphemer is a God-given religious duty enjoined on everyone, and a responsibility his client was duly carrying out. Opposing arguments cited various Islamic teachings arguing instead that each person is liable to answer to God. “Will it not instill fear in the society if everybody starts taking the law in their own hands and dealing with sensitive matters such as blasphemy on their own rather than going to the courts?” Justice Khosa asked. Human rights activists hail this decision as a much-needed victory for the country’s rule of law and due process proceedings. The blasphemy law comes with a guaranteed sentence for death for anyone found guilty, and is most often used in poor and rural areas, and targets minorities in particular. Activists believe it is most often used to intimidate and settle personal scores.
That was the basis for allegations against Aasia Noreen, a poor, illiterate Christian woman, whose case became a lightning rod in Pakistan. Governor Taseer famously took to her defence and lobbied to amend the blasphemy laws to prevent such misuse. His beliefs and work infuriated Qadri, inciting him to take the law into his own hands and take the life of the popular Governor.
The Qadri legal team unsuccessfully argued that critiquing the blasphemy law was in itself committing the act of blasphemy, a notion roundly debunked by the Supreme Court.
The decision takes a strong stance for democracy, declaring that in a democratic government, each citizen has the right to debate the existing legal code because it is amenable to modifications by representatives of the people. Examples like the Rimsha Masih case, in which a local imam was found to have framed a 14-year old girl for blasphemy, and the case of Shama and Shahzad Masih in which a mob killed this young Christian couple on allegations of blasphemy, show misuse is indeed rampant.
The Court’s decision stated that the facts of the case showed that the Governor was talking about the defects of the law, which had at times been exploited for personal benefit.
The three-member bench wisely steered Pakistan away from a perilous future in which blasphemy allegations could sufficiently terrorise innocent people into settling personal scores, Justice Khosa noted.
This momentous decision comes at a time when many lawyers are afraid to represent the accused, and judges are reluctant to hear blasphemy cases, citing concerns for their personal safety. The death of Governor Taseer sent shockwaves throughout Pakistan, underscoring the widening chasm between the country’s liberal and far-right wings. It was the highest profile political assassination since Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. Just two months after Governor Taseer was killed, the Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and advocate for the blasphemy reform, was killed as well. In the days leading up to this decision, a number of protestors affiliated with Pakistani Sunni Tehreek were arrested outside the Supreme Court for chanting pro-Qadri slogans and violating discipline. In a statement released following the verdict, the Sunni Tehreek have vowed to file a review petition to the same Supreme Court, declaring that the decision is against Sharia Law.
Mumtaz Qadri still has the right to file a mercy appeal to the President.