Pakistan's blasphemy law worries opponents of extremism

AP News
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Posted: Jan 25, 2017 10:52 AM
Pakistan's blasphemy law worries opponents of extremism

BARAKHAO, Pakistan (AP) — Two ornate minarets pierce the evening sky and frame the emerald green dome of a shrine to Mumtaz Qadri. He was hanged for killing a politician who criticized Pakistan's blasphemy law — a measure that can bring a death sentence for anyone insulting Islam.

A marble-encased tomb holds the body of Qadri, a member of an elite police unit charged with protecting Punjab provincial Gov. Salman Taseer. But instead of keeping him safe, Qadri turned his AK-47 assault rifle on Taseer and killed him. With a smile on his face, Qadri then put down his weapon and was arrested, tried and hanged last year.

Qadri's brother, Amir Sajjad, spends afternoons and evenings at the shrine, collecting donations for a mosque and madrassa, or religious school, to be built at the site on the outskirts of Islamabad. Millions of rupees have been collected, Sajjad said.

The shrine worries those in Pakistan who fear a growth of extremism. There have been brutal sectarian killings, violent demonstrations by clerics in favor of the blasphemy law, and threats to anyone who dares to challenge it.

Earlier this month, five liberal-leaning bloggers disappeared — the latest targets of radical clerics and their followers. The clerics have accused the missing writers of blasphemy following a social media campaign raising those allegations without any evidence. In Pakistan, a simple accusation of blasphemy can be tantamount to a death sentence.

The government has stepped in, saying there was no evidence the bloggers said or did anything that could be considered blasphemous, and that there was no suggestion of any of them being charged with blasphemy.

The bloggers, whose disappearances have been decried nationally and internationally, had been critical of the military and bemoaned the presence of radical religious militant groups in their country. No group has taken responsibility for their disappearances.

Supporters of the bloggers say the shrine to Qadri exalts those who kill in the name of religion. They also say it makes it dangerous to even amend the blasphemy law to prevent it from being abused.

Attorney Saif-ul-Mulk, who prosecuted Qadri, said the Supreme Court of Pakistan judged him to be "a terrorist," yet clerics and others are "trying to paint him as a saint."

"I can assure you that in the coming 10 to 20 years, he will be a saint of very high profile and billions of rupees will be coming to his shrine," the attorney said.

Mulk is defending Asiya Bibi, a Christian who has been on death row for six years, and he has taken her final appeal to the Supreme Court. Bibi was accused by a group of co-workers of insulting Islam's prophet, a charge she denies. The accusation came after a dispute with the co-workers that she drank the same water as hem while they were working in a field.

Mulk travels with security, and police are stationed outside his home in the eastern Punjab city of Lahore.

In an interview, Mulk noted that the Qadri case risks encouraging other would-be "martyrs," whose relatives might gain financially from carrying out similar killings.

"If one person is not able to feed his parents and family, he gives his life, kills somebody big, and the whole family becomes richer than they could ever dream," he said.

For some in Pakistan, the shrine is seen as yet another tool in the arsenal of radical Sunni Muslim groups seeking to consolidate their hold over Pakistan's 180 million people.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense analyst who has written extensively on Pakistan's military, warned in a recent column that Qadri's shrine will emerge as a rallying point for preserving the blasphemy law, which some liberal lawmakers would like to see at least amended so it is more difficult to abuse.

"The blasphemy law is their big ticket to support amongst the masses, which they would like to consolidate further with the symbol they have now erected in the form of Mumtaz Qadri's shrine near the capital city," Siddiqa wrote. "Last year, his family had buried him strategically in an open ground and sort of wilderness (area) to ensure that a structure could be built on top."

The roof of the shrine shimmers from thousands of tiny inlaid mirrors. A crystal chandelier revolves atop Qadri's marble grave embellished with verses from the Quran.

Those coming to pay homage to Qadri lay their prayer mats amid the construction that is going on.

On a recent day, the shrine drew men, women and children, as well as a handful of students from Pakistan's financial hub of Karachi, a cosmopolitan city of 20 million people on the Arabian Sea. The students, who were well-educated and spoke English, nevertheless expressed hard-line views.

Bilal Fazl, 18, who attends a university in Karachi, denounced Taseer, the slain provincial governor.

"He said the blasphemy law was a black law," Fazl said. "It was OK to kill him."

But he had nothing but admiration for Qadri, whom he described as a "hero of Islam."

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Follow Kathy Gannon on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kathygannon .