The case of Mumtaz Qadri, the policeman who assassinated Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011, has for long been seen as a litmus test for the Pakistan government’s commitment to the drive against terrorism and religious extremism.
Qadri surrendered immediately after pumping 28 bullets into Taseer outside a popular restaurant in the heart of Islamabad. It soon emerged he was assigned to Taseer’s security detail despite being declared a security risk by Punjab Police for his extreme religious views as far back as 2002.
He called himself a “slave” of Prophet Mohammed and said he had killed the governor for campaigning to change Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law and for standing up for Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet.
In many ways, Qadri’s case reflected how difficult it has been for Pakistan’s investigation agencies and judiciary to go after terrorists and religious extremists. The country has failed to prosecute anyone so far for high-profile terrorist attacks such as the 2007 assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto and the 2008 suicide bombing of Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.
The divide over the execution reflects the continuing support for the extremist groups that inspired Qadri and the split on the fundamental issue of eradicating terrorism and religious fundamentalism that has claimed tens of thousands of Pakistani lives.
When Qadri first appeared in court to be charged with murder, he was showered with rose petals by supporters and lawyers. A former Chief Justice of the Lahore high court was among the lawyers who lined up to defend the self-confessed assassin. Thousands turned out for rallies organised by extremist groups in support of Qadri.
And nine months after Taseer’s murder, the judge who sentenced Qadri to death had to flee Pakistan after receiving threats from religious extremists. When the Islamabad high court resumed hearing Qadri’s appeal after a three-year gap last year, the judges had to clarify that the delay wasn’t driven by fear.
Taseer, probably best known in India as the father of writer Aatish Taseer, was often a critic of India, especially on social media, but few could doubt his credentials as a champion of a secular and liberal Pakistan.
Two weeks after Taseer’s assassination, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in the federal government and a critic of the blasphemy law, was gunned down in Islamabad. And even after Taseer’s killing, his family was targeted by extremist groups – his son Shahbaz Taseer was kidnapped in 2011 and still remains untraced.
And in a country where Qadri was held up as a hero and an “Ashiq-e-Rasool” by many, some even believed he would eventually be let off despite the National Action Plan for terrorism framed by the government after the 2014 massacre in an army-run school in Peshawar that left nearly 150 dead.
Thus, it wasn’t surprising that Qadri’s execution on Monday morning – after his mercy petition as rejected by the President – was followed hours later by protests in cities such as Islamabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi, mostly orchestrated by hardline religious parties tapping into the religious sentiments of largely poor, uneducated masses in the countryside. There was support for Qadri from unexpected quarters too –the Islamabad Bar Council boycotted courts to protest against the hanging.
Yet social media platforms were abuzz with considerable backing for the Pakistan government, highlighting the fact that for the educated, middle-class religious violence had no place in society. Some even hailed the authorities for executing Qadri on February 29 so that his death couldn’t be commemorated for the next four years. But the question remains: Could this finally mark a turning point in Pakistan’s fight against extremism?
(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @Rezhasan)