March 9, 2015 / 9:09 AM / 2 years ago

Death sentence upheld for killer of Pakistani governor over blasphemy law

Supporters of a religious political party shout slogans during a demonstration against the sentence of convicted killer Mumtaz Qadri in Karachi March 9, 2015.Athar Hussain

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani court upheld the death sentence on Monday for the killer of the governor of Pakistan's largest province after he had called for reform of a law against blasphemy, media said.

The ruling was a surprise to many who had expected the killer's sentence might be reduced amid growing threats to lawyers and judges hearing blasphemy-related cases.

Mumtaz Qadri was a bodyguard for Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and was convicted of shooting him dead in Islamabad in January 2011.

Taseer was an outspoken critic of predominantly Muslim Pakistan's harsh blasphemy law - which carries the death penalty.

Qadri is viewed as a hero by many people who thought Taseer himself was a blasphemer by calling for the law's reform.

The killing highlighted a growing gulf between conservatives and more liberal elements in society. Some lawyers threw rose petals at Qadri when he arrived in court days after the killing.

The judge who convicted Qadri was forced to flee the country after death threats.

An anti-terrorism court handed down double death sentences for murder and terrorism to Qadri in late 2011. He appealed the sentences, but on Monday, Islamabad High Court upheld the murder sentence - though it struck down the sentence for terrorism.

Reporters and other members of the public were not allowed into Monday's hearing. Qadri's lawyer could not be reached for comment immediately.

Several TV channels reported the verdict and footage showed police sealing the court building with barbed wire soon after the verdict was announced.

Last year, gunmen posing as clients shot dead a prominent human rights lawyer defending a professor accused of blasphemy.

The blasphemy law mandates the death penalty and is often used in poor, rural areas to settle personal scores. Presenting evidence in court can be considered a new infringement, so judges are reluctant to hear cases. Those acquitted have often been lynched.

Taseer had championed the cause of a Christian woman sentenced to death in a blasphemy case, which arose out of a dispute. Taseer had said the law was being misused and should be reformed.

Two months after Taseer's murder, Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was murdered by the Taliban for demanding changes to the blasphemy law.

Blasphemy accusations have spiked in Pakistan recently, according to a 2012 study by the Islamabad-based think tank, the Center for Research and Security Studies, that documented 80 complaints in 2011, up from a single case in 2001.

Writing By Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Kay Johnson and Nick Macfie

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