On Wednesday, however, Pakistan’s Supreme Court handed down a momentous verdict. The judges upheld the conviction against Qadri. The court also set a key precedent earlier this week, with a ruling that criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws did not constitute blasphemy. That should be obvious, but the nature of Pakistan’s laws was such that the distinction wasn’t clear. So great was the fear of falling foul of the blasphemy laws that even repeating the alleged blasphemy could trigger a charge. As a result, little or no evidence was traditionally needed to secure a conviction. That could now change.
This marks a big change from when Qadri was first put behind bars at Adiala Jail, where the guards fell under his sway. In September 2014, a policeman at the jail, in thrall to Qadri according to a subsequent internal inquiry, shot and severely wounded a British-Pakistan man who had been convicted of blasphemy. A few months later, on the anniversary of Taseer’s murder, unknown men tried to disrupt a vigil in his honor in Lahore.
The court’s decision on Qadri’s conviction tentatively signals a new resolve from the Pakistani state. Religious extremists have long been able to thrive on the back of a state that was sometimes weak, but more often unwilling, to assert itself for the public good. At the conclusion of Qadri’s trial in October 2011, the judge who handed down the conviction had to flee the country, flying to Saudi Arabia to perform pilgrimage at Mecca rather than face his tormentors at home. Qadri’s lawyer, meanwhile, was a former chief justice of the Lahore High Court.
In recent months, there have been other signs of a crackdown. A slew of preachers have, for the first time, been convicted of hate speech for advocating violence against religious minorities. And in July, the authorities gunned down Malik Ishaq, who frequently boasted of killing Shias in his speeches.
The Supreme Court’s decision means that Qadri will be hanged, a prospect his supporters have surprisingly resisted. In the early stages of the trial, angry crowds would threaten television executives with death if they didn’t publicize their cause. One TV executive told reporters that he once questioned their logic. “Do you believe Qadri is heaven-bound?’” he asked a man threatening him over the phone. Of course, the angry man replied. “Then why do you want to delay his journey?”
For Taseer’s family, the last three years have proved to be a grueling ordeal. Months after he was killed, his son Shahbaz Taseer was kidnapped in Lahore, by an armed group apparently unconnected to Qadri’s supporters. He is still missing.
When the trial began, “Going to the court took an emotional toll on me,” says Shehryar Taseer, Salmaan Taseer’s son and Shahbaz Taseer’s brother. “I had to look at [Qadri] across from me in the court. He always seemed to have a smirk on his face.” Outside the court, madrassa students were bussed in to shout menacing slogans in Qadri’s support, creating an atmosphere of intimidation.
The verdict is a bittersweet source of relief to Taseer’s widow, Amna Taseer. Her husband, she says, was a champion of the liberal, tolerant ideals of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The supreme court ruling, she says, represents a victory for the principles her husband was fighting for. “Hanging Salmaan’s murderer does not take away the horror and grief my three children and I have suffered,” she told Al Jazeera. “His loss is irreplaceable.”
And the new show of strength by the Pakistani state has its costs. After Malik Ishaq’s killing, the extremists struck back swiftly. Shuja Khanzada, a doughty Punjab home minister, was killed after a bomb caused his home to collapse on top of him and others. The slenderest of silver linings appeared when large numbers of Lahoris turned out to mark Khanzada’s memory, with a large portrait of him wreathed in Pakistani flags, at the same spot where Taseer’s supporters had been attacked months earlier.
The verdict, though, leaves some things unchanged. A murderer has been convicted of murder, but vulnerable members of religious minorities remain vulnerable to being convicted for blasphemies they never committed. If the court’s pronouncements are to take effect, local authorities will have to switch their focus from bowing to mob pressure to protecting the falsely accused.
And Aasia Bibi, the woman whose cause Salmaan Taseer took up, remains behind bars. A few hours after the verdict was announced, Shehrbano Taseer, the slain governor’s youngest daughter, tweeted, “Justice for Aasia Bibi next.”
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