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RAWALPINDI, Oct 1: Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed assassin of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, was sentenced to death on two counts for murder and terrorism by a court here on Saturday.

Judge Syed Pervaiz Ali Shah, of the anti-terrorism court, announced the verdict after an in camera trial in Adiyala jail. He also imposed a fine of Rs 200,000 on the convict, who would have to undergo one-year imprisonment in case of failure to submit the fine.

The judge overruled a plea by Mumtaz Qadri that he had assassinated the governor because of his ‘blasphemous’ statements.

The judge said the accused had already confessed to his crime and the law did not entertain his defence arguments for killing the governor.

Police were deployed at the jail gate to prevent any break-in. After Qadri was sentenced, the judge left through the back door.

The verdict came in spite of a relentless campaign by hardline religious groups which invoked Islam to glorify the murder.

Mumtaz Qadri, who was an official bodyguard of Mr Taseer, gunned down Salman Taseer outside a restaurant at Islamabad’s Koshar market on Jan 4.

In a 40-page statement submitted to the court, Qadri said Mr Taseer’s statements in support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman charged with blasphemy, had provoked him to kill the governor.

He had cited in the statement verses from the holy Quran, quotations from the life of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), four decisions of the Caliphs and views of Hanafi, Shafai, Maliki, Hanbali and Jafria schools of thought from Islamic jurisprudence about blasphemy under section 265-F (5) of the CrPC to justify his act.

Although the murder was chilling in itself, what followed jolted the nation with a sense of foreboding: lawyers decorated Mumtaz Qadri with flowers, thousands took to the streets in his defence and mainstream politicians refrained from publicly condemning the cold-blooded killing.

Two weeks after he was killed, the only Christian minister in the federal cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was gunned down in Islamabad. He too was a critic of the blasphemy laws.

Members of Mr Taseer’s family have been speaking out against militancy, despite the assassination and in August, his son was kidnapped from his car in Lahore. Shahbaz Taseer’s wherabouts remain untraced.

Talking to Dawn, Raja Shuja-ur-Rehman, the counsel for Qadri, said the verdict was “unexpected and unprecedented” because the court had to hear arguments of the prosecution and close the case for the day, instead of issuing the judgment.

He said the judge had announced the verdict in the absence of defence counsel and handed over its copy to the convict. “The court informed us only after awarding death sentence to Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri.” Raja Rehman said he had to file an application in the court under Section 23 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) during the hearing to get terrorism charges against Qadri quashed.

He claimed that no terrorism charges were proved against Qadri and that was why the court could not hold the trial under the ATA. The case would have now to be shifted to a sessions court, Raja Rehman added.

“We will file an appeal against the verdict in the high court in seven days,” the counsel said.

The conviction enraged supporters of Mumtaz Qadri. They burnt tyres on important roads in Rawalpindi and Lahore, smashed window panes of public and private vehicles, tore up portraits of government figures and vandalised the monument of PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto at Pindi’s Liaquat Bagh. Police and law enforcement personnel did not try to control the enraged protesters.

The Sunni Ittehad Council said it would observe a wheel-jam strike and Youm-i-Muzamat (day of condemnation) on Oct 7.

AFP adds: Whether Qadri will hang will remain open even after the appeals process is exhausted. Qadri has seven days to appeal the verdict.

According to Amnesty International, Pakistan has had an informal moratorium on executions in place since late 2008, before which it had hanged at least 36 people that year.

Governor Taseer’s killing was the most high-profile political assassination since former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was murdered in a gun-and-suicide attack on a Rawalpindi election rally in Dec 2007.