When the Pakistan government lifted its moratorium on the death penalty in the aftermath of the Peshawar school attack, there was one particular case that most judges would have wanted to avoid.
In the four years since Mumtaz Qadri assassinated Salmaan Taseer – the then governor of the most powerful province of Pakistan – the former Punjab Elite Force officer has had lawyers and judges rally for him in the hundreds; had a mosque named after him; incited a police officer to shoot an inmate; and generally been the emblem of resistance with respect to any reform to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which has become a veritable guillotine for religious minorities.
Qadri, the most illustrious of the approximately 8,000 criminals on death row, now faces the prospect of being sent to the gallows – although that assumes he is treated in the same way as other condemned prisoners in Pakistan.
Qadri’s defence team, which outnumbers the police presence in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) and includes two former high court judges, appealed against their client’s death sentence last month.
Former Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court (LHC) Khawaja Muhammad Sharif, a member of Qadri’s defence team, has identified “flaws” in the prosecution’s case, represented by Advocate General (AG) Mian Abdur Rauf. Sharif argues that the verdict that was handed down in October 2011 by the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) was invalid because their client’s act was not an act of terrorism.
Sharif was also apprehensive about Qadri’s case being transferred to the military courts that were formed in the wake of the 21st Constitutional Amendment Bill 2015. Sharif, like many opinion-makers in Pakistan, realizes that the chances of Qadri being executed in a military court would be significantly higher than they would if he fronted a civilian court.
So what exactly are the chances of the case being transferred to a military court?
“Zero,” said Babar Sattar, an Islamabad-based lawyer and columnist for the daily English newspaper Dawn.
“The Mumtaz Qadri case cannot be transferred to a military court, because the verdict has already been given on the case by a trial court, an ATC,” Sattar added.
“The 21st Amendment doesn’t apply to cases already trialed,” he clarified, noting that “there is no retrospective application. Only those prisoners who have been awaiting verdicts can be sent to the military courts, which have been formulated to ensure swift trials.”
“The verdict for Qadri’s execution is already there. It’s now up to the court to implement the verdict.”
“The only way the verdict from 2011 can be overturned is if Qadri’s team convinces the IHC bench that killing Salman Taseer wasn’t an act of terrorism,” said lawyer and activist, Jibran Nasir, who has risen to prominence after orchestrating protests against religious extremism, terrorism, and sectarian violence since the Peshawar school attack.
“The Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) clearly defines ‘terrorism.’ When Article 6 highlights “creating a sense of fear or insecurity in the society’ as terrorism, it does not have to be the entire society,” Nasir said.
“If an act of killing instills fear in particular sections of the society, according to the ATA it is an act of terrorism. And Taseer’s murder, and the ensuing reaction, did create insecurity within the society with regards to religious extremism,” he added.
Article 6 1(c) of ATA, 1997 also highlights “the use or threat made for the purpose of advancing a religious, sectarian or ethnic cause,” as terrorism. And when one considers that Qadri has openly confessed to the killing to guard the sanctity of the blasphemy law, overturning the ATC’s verdict will not be a legal cakewalk.
“Qadri’s defense team needs the case to be trialed in a civilian court where they can use their daunting tactics to turn the verdict in their favor,” Nasir claimed.
The Mumtaz Qadri case isn’t just a verdict on a single terrorist’s life; more importantly it targets religious fundamentalism, the elephant in the room before the Peshawar school attack, and is epitomized by Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law. Taseer was murdered for castigating the law and warning against his misuse.
How crucial will the outcome of the Qadri case be as far as reforming the blasphemy law is concerned?
“Mumtaz Qadri verdict will not reform blasphemy laws per se but will have an indirect effect,” said Yasser Latif Hamdani a Lahore-based lawyer and the author of Jinnah: Myth and Reality.
“The case is important because the issue is not as much about Qadri’s life or death but whether or not killing someone in the name of religion can be legally condoned,” he added.
“If the Islamabad High Court rejects the idea that Salmaan Taseer committed blasphemy by questioning the law itself, it will at least create space for criticism of an unjust law. And since it is legally impossible for the case to be transferred to a military court, the IHC would have to uphold the decision. It would be a litmus test for the judiciary’s ability to deal with religious extremism.”
The influence of the outcome of the Qadri case on the blasphemy law and overcoming the religious inertia is going to be massive, especially when one considers the sectarian undertones.
“A lot of scholars from the Barelvi school of thought (the Islamic fiqh Qadri adheres to) like the Sunni Ittehad Council, who strongly condemn Deobandi groups like the Taliban, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and Deobandi madrassas, have publically offered Rs 10 million ($100,000) for the gun that Qadri used to shoot Taseer,” Nasir said.
However, the biggest litmus test will be for the civilian judiciary and whether it can take a stand against religious extremism.
“Where are all those lawyers who took a stand against Pervez Musharraf? Why does the topmost government lawyer need to come and fight what in all honesty is a simple murder case?” asked Nasir.
“We are all afraid. No one is willing to fight for Qadri’s execution, especially since the murder of Rashid Rehman (killed for taking on a blasphemy case),” claimed Nasir, who had volunteered to take up the case in a letter to the AG last month.
“If the civilian legal system does not deliver on this issue, it will lose the argument against military courts vis-à-vis religious extremism,” claimed Hamdani.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist covering human rights, security, militancy, diplomacy, energy and finance. He is web editor for The Nation and reporter/columnist for The Friday Times.