Sympathy for an Assassin: The Worrisome Protests in Pakistan

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Farooq Naeem / AFP / Getty Images

Supporters of Mumtaz Qadri hold his picture and shout slogans outside Adiyala prison, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on March 5, 2011

It isn't hard to find the home of Pakistan's most famous killer. At every corner in this maze of tightly packed streets, mere miles from the army's headquarters, taxi drivers and street vendors readily gesture toward the birthplace of Mumtaz Qadri, the police bodyguard who, nine months ago, pumped 27 bullets into Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab. Taseer had opposed the country's blasphemy laws, which were, in turn, championed by religious conservatives like Qadri. Along the way, banners hanging from electricity pylons hail the "bravery" and "greatness" of the assassin many in Pakistan chillingly regard as a "hero of Islam."

Nowhere is this status plainer than outside the crowded, 32-room, multistory compound where Qadri lived with his wife, now 1-year-old son and 70 other relatives. Vast billboards are mounted on the side, depicting him as a holy warrior astride a white horse. A poster declares the 27-year-old "the Prophet's policeman." Graffiti daubed on a nearby wall salutes him as a ghazi, a title conferred on famed warriors in Islamic history. And in the narrow street, hundreds were gathered to march for his release from prison. While the crowds were not as huge as those that came out to support Qadri when he was arrested, their persistence and the wide acceptance of their intolerant attitudes continues to be a worrisome omen.

"Oh ghazi, when you are taken up to meet the Lord," declaims a thickly bearded man with moist eyes and a faint quiver in his voice, "please don't forget about us poor, sinning folk down here!" Members of the crowd around him say they fear Qadri will soon be hanged. Last week, a local terrorism court handed down a death sentence for the crime, to which Qadri had confessed. ("This is the punishment for a blasphemer," Qadri boasted from the back of a police wagon, smiling sinisterly at cameras, shortly after his arrest.) The judge, Pervez Ali Shah, was forced to go into hiding when extremists bayed for his blood after the sentence was announced. Hefty rewards were offered for a third assassination of its kind this year. In March, two months after Taseer's slaying, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minorities Minister and the only Christian member of the Cabinet, was gunned down outside his mother's home in Islamabad.

For Qadri's supporters, any suggestion that Pakistan's blasphemy laws should be amended or repealed is an invitation to murder. "Salmaan Taseer's act was not according to Islam," says Fayaz ul Hassan Chauhan, a former provincial legislator now whipping up the protests. "It was the responsibility of the government to take action. It didn't ... So Mumtaz Qadri's act is 100% according to Islam," he adds with a tone of triumph. The blasphemy laws, as human-rights activists point out, are vaguely worded and often invoked as tools of social coercion. On little or no evidence, the targets of personal vendettas and members of religious minorities are hurled into dark prison cells from where they may never emerge.

Since Taseer's slaying, the blasphemy laws have been put to increasing use. Last month, an eighth-grader was beaten and expelled for a mere spelling error. Instead of writing the Urdu word for hymn, she mistakenly added what appeared to be an extra letter, rendering the word to mean curse. She narrowly evaded prosecution. A week later, a madrasah student was arrested for allegedly torching pages from the Koran. Ironically, he had set out to save the torn pages from desecration, and burned them according to a traditional practice. He was beset by a mob. Some blame the state for this trend. After Taseer's murder, the government capitulated, with many ministers breathlessly vowing never to touch the blasphemy laws. "The government's reaction has been one of appeasement rather than holding people accountable," says Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch. "This has promoted a culture of vigilantism. It shows the ethical degradation of state and society that these practices are now acceptable."

As the marchers set out from Qadri's home, they are joined by thickening crowds. The shops are shuttered after local merchants united to call a sympathetic strike. The Friday bazaar has emptied out into the demonstration. Striding out front are bearded men, with tightly wrapped turbans or white skullcaps. Some are clasping sticks. One man carries a rare black baseball bat. The bulk of the several thousand men who have managed to occupy Islamabad's main highway are ordinary, evincing no marks of zealotry. That is the most worrying sign of the blasphemy controversy: how many members of mainstream Pakistan have come to accept, or even approve of, Qadri's murderous act.

When the smiling slayer was sentenced last week, the judge won little public support. "Nobody's standing up for this judgment," laments prominent lawyer Babar Sattar. "Everyone's scared. No one wants to support it, because they fear they will become marked men." The silence, contrasted with the howls of protest in support of Qadri, could intimidate the next judge who will hear the case on appeal. "The judge who gets assigned the case will be very nervous," adds Sattar. There are grim precedents. Two judges have been killed after ruling in favor of accused blasphemers.

While the blasphemy law's keenest champions have shown they have little patience for due process, law-enforcement officials appear to have only displayed a dangerous indulgence for their behavior. On the highway from Rawalpindi to Islamabad, the police maintained a light and discreet presence. A day earlier, they stood by as 5,000 supporters of a banned sectarian group gathered to chant bloodcurdling anti-Shi'ite slogans in the capital. And in Lahore on Friday, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai massacre, swelled the ranks of the pro-Qadri protesters.

The sole mercy is that, despite the extremists' presence on the streets, their ranks appear to be smaller. Though the angry attitudes endure, their proponents could only summon a fraction of the numbers they paraded through Pakistan's streets in the aftermath of Taseer's martyrdom. But that will be of little consolation to the late governor's family. Shahbaz, the third of Taseer's four sons, was kidnapped 44 days ago from near their home in Lahore. The abductors still have not announced their identities or asked for ransom. A senior Punjab police official has told Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani that Shahbaz may be in the hands of militants in Waziristan. And so, while members of the murderer's family are cheered in the streets, the victim's family remains confined to an emptier home, still hoping for justice.