RAWALPINDI: A Pakistani court on Monday charged a police commando with terrorism and the murder of leading liberal politician Salman Taseer, whose assassination divided the country.
Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri pleaded not guilty to murder, his legal team said, after the Punjab governor was shot dead outside a cafe in a leafy street of Islamabad on January 4.
Qadri had confessed to killing Taseer, objecting to his calls to reform the blasphemy law, which sentences to death those convicted of defaming the Prophet Mohammed and which rights groups say is exploited in cases of personal enmity.
One of Qadri's lawyers, Malik Mohammad Rafiq Khan, told AFP after an anti-terrorism court session held behind closed doors: “The judge examined the record and said that apparently the accused committed murder and terrorism.
“The judge read out the charges to the accused. The accused pleaded not guilty,” Khan said in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
Qadri denied it was murder saying he had acted on the directives of the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed “regarding an apostate”, Khan said.
The next hearing will be held on February 26, when witnesses and evidence will be presented, the lawyer added.
Taseer's killing was the most high-profile political assassination in Pakistan since former prime minister Benazir Bhutto died in a gun and suicide attack on her motorcade at the end of an election rally on December 27, 2007.
The country's growing conservative religious right publicly praised Qadri for silencing a dangerous reformer. But the death appalled the tiny liberal elite, who interpreted the killing as a death knell for reform efforts.
Reacting to the indictment, Qari Hanif Qureshi, a firebrand speaker and apparent inspiration for Qadri who demonstrated in his support outside the Rawalpindi jail on Monday, said Islam rewarded the killers of apostates.
“Now it is up to the court to decide,” he told AFP.
Five days before the assassination, the government led by Taseer's Pakistan People's Party said it had no intention of amending the blasphemy law despite a global outcry over a Christian mother sentenced to death, whom he supported.
“The government should have taken action against the governor, but since it failed to do so, Qadri was compelled to take the law into in his own hands. He should be punished only for violating the law, not murder,” said Qureshi. – AFP