Governor Punjab Salman Taseer’s assassin Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. — Photo by Reuters

RAWALPINDI: A man who admitted assassinating a Pakistani provincial governor to defend the country's controversial blasphemy laws appeared in a prison court for a preliminary trial hearing Monday.

Bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri has confessed that he gunned down his boss, Punjab governor Salman Taseer, on January 4 because he objected to the politician's wish to amend the blasphemy law, which carries the death penalty.

Taseer's killing has met with mixed reactions in Pakistan, with many from the country's increasingly powerful conservative religious quarter praising the gunman for acting to silence the outspoken moderate politician.

Rallies have been held in honour of Qadri, who was showered with petals at earlier court hearings after he admitted to the shooting.

Monday's hearing was held in private inside high-security Adiyala prison in Rawalpindi, a garrison city bordering capital Islamabad, with no media present.

Some 35 Qadri supporters from an Islamic youth group gathered outside the jail, reciting Koranic verses and shouting: “Allah is the Greatest”, “We salute you Qadri” and “Long Live Qadri, Long Live Punjab police”.

Qadri's lawyer Shuja Rehman told AFP that investigation reports were submitted to the court before the hearing was adjourned until February 1, when the gunman would be indicted.

“We met Qadri in the prison. He is being kept in solitary confinement which is another form of torture. We asked the court to allow his family members to see him and he be given legal facilities in the prison,” said Rehman.

No prosecuting lawyer was available to comment.

According to an investigating officer, Qadri in his confession said that he killed Salman Taseer by himself and he had no links with any extremist organisation but was “impressed” by the speeches of two outspoken clerics.

The clerics known for their fiery sermons - Mufti Qari Haneef Qureshi and Imtiaz Shah - sought and were granted injunctions at a Rawalpindi court last week preventing them being arrested in connection with Qadri's crime.

Qureshi appeared outside the prison to support Qadri on Monday, and told AFP that he had no involvement in the killing.

Qadri could be “one of thousands who offer prayers led by me” said Qureshi.

“I have come here because I want him to be freed by the court.”

The killing has reignited controversy over Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which were recently used to sentence a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, to death following a dispute with her fellow villagers in southern Punjab.

Taseer sought to amend the law, which human rights activists say is often abused in petty disputes, but in the face of huge public support for the legislation the government has said it has no plans to change it.

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