April issue 2015

By | Viewpoint | Published 5 years ago

Teetering on the crossroads of ideological ambivalence, over the past four years the existential direction Pakistan is likely to take hinges in great measure on a single man’s fate. That man has epitomised the bleakest shade of the increasingly darkening picture of this country, and has become a symbol of the creeping obscurantism and extremism that has engulfed large swathes of the Muslim world. What happens to him could determine the nation’s fate.

Mumtaz Qadri’s only claim to fame is pumping 27 bullets into the body of the man who he was paid to protect, the then governor of the most powerful province of Pakistan, Salmaan Taseer. Qadri is one of around 8,000 prisoners on death row facing the prospect of being sent to the gallows, following the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty by the federal government in the aftermath of the Peshawar school attack in December.

Interestingly, Qadri’s prospects of being judicially executed are, as all the markers to date indicate, significantly less than other prisoners on death row. Consider this: his defence team outnumbers the entire police presence in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) and is spearheaded by two former High Court judges. In February this year, Qadri’s team appealed against the verdict of two death sentences handed out to their client on October 1, 2011 by an anti-terrorism court (ATC) — one each for murder and terrorism — under the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) Section 302 and the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA)’s Section 7.

The IHC upheld Qadri’s death sentence last month, but overruled the charges of terrorism in its 64-page verdict, citing ‘lack of evidence’ with regards to the fact that the murder was designed to instil panic and fear in society.

In any upright court of law anywhere else in the world, conducting business as it should be conducted, the upholding of both charges would have been a fait accompli.  After all, the crime was committed in broad daylight, and Qadri has unabashedly admitted to the murder multiple times in the past four years. Furthermore, just as clear as the murder itself, was the motive behind it: it was a warning signal to those refuting, or even questioning the charges of blasphemy levelled against anyone — no matter how flimsy the grounds on which these were levelled. Qadri asserted as much on record, saying Taseer’s murder “is a lesson for all the apostates, as they finally have to meet the same fate.” Yet Qadri was absolved of terrorism.

This is as ironic as it is unfortunate. Section 6 of the 1997 ATA clearly deals with the definition of terrorism, with1 Section 7 showcasing punishments for terrorist acts. Article 6 1(b) defines terrorism as “the use or threat of action where the use or threat is designed to coerce and intimidate or overawe the government or the public or a section of the public or community or sect or create a sense of fear or insecurity in society…”

It is important to note that the reference to “a sense of fear or insecurity in society,” doesn’t have to extend to society in entirety; it can be even just one section of the public. Article 6 2(i) clarifies this by stating that “an action shall fall within the meaning of terrorism if it creates a serious risk to safety of [the] public or a section of the public, or is designed to frighten the general public and thereby prevent them from coming out and carrying on their lawful trade and daily business, and disrupts civil (civic) life…”

Few would doubt that after the Taseer assassination, “fear was instilled” in many sections of society, especially among the minorities and those diverging from the Islamist ideology peddled by Qadri and his ilk. Fear was also instilled in the lawyers considering taking up the Qadri prosecution, and in the hearts of judges who would have to hear the case. In fact, the judge who sent Qadri to the gallows was forced to flee the country, fearing for his life. And lawyers defending others charged with blasphemy also seriously began to reconsider taking up such cases, particularly after one of their fraternity, the much respected Rashid Rehman, was assassinated in his pursuit of justice for a defenceless victim.

When one goes through Article 6 1(c) of the ATA, there, in fact, remains little legal room to manoeuvre for those doubting Qadri’s status as a terrorist. Article 6 1(c) includes in the definition of terrorism, “the use or threat of action where the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a religious, sectarian or ethnic cause.”

Few acts of terrorism are more bare-facedly motivated by the “purpose of advancing a religious cause” than alleging someone to be an apostate, murdering them for blasphemy, highlighting it as a religious obligation and then warning the rest of society of a similar fate should anyone dare to put a finger on the state’s antediluvian laws.

The Qadri verdict is particularly disturbing, not just because of his absolution as a terrorist, but because of its wider ramifications. For if murdering someone you allege to be an ‘apostate’ or infidel isn’t religiously motivated terrorism, then what possible logic can one use to claim that the killings of Shias, Ahmedis, Hindus or Christians — who are unarguably targeted owing to their religious or sectarian identities — are acts of terrorism?

Let’s not forget that the act of apostatising individuals and then targeting their lives is the founding principle of the militaristic strategy of terrorist organisations like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) — now known as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) — and the biggest terrorist threat in the world right now: ISIS.

The attack on Malala Yousafzai, the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, the church blasts in Peshawar (2013) and Lahore (2015), the ongoing Shia genocide and the Peshawar school attack are just a few examples of terrorist organisations labelling their targets as infidels before targeting them, more often than not with fatal consequences. To assert that Taseer’s murder was anything but a religiously motivated terrorist attack is to not only insult the former governor and his family, but to mock the brazen-faced murder of over 50,000 Pakistani citizens, including the 132 schoolchildren of APS Peshawar, all of whom were declared as murtideen (apostates) to vindicate ‘jihad’ against them.

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If one were to dig a little deeper into the IHC’s verdict, the removal of the terrorism charge means that Qadri’s team can now settle the case out of court by paying blood money to Taseer’s legal heirs — something that is not permitted if one is convicted as a terrorist according to the ATA. Furthermore, according to the Pakistan Protection Ordinance (PPO), glorifying a convicted terrorist — something that a significant percentage of Pakistan’s population has been guilty of in the past four years — is a cognisable offence, which after the IHC’s verdict would make Qadri’s already teeming eulogies perfectly legal.

More importantly though, the IHC’s decision jeopardises the already vulnerable lives of the few who are standing up against the peril of the blasphemy law. Any fear the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty and the military courts might have engendered among religious extremists, following the 21st Constitutional Amendment Bill 2015, will have evaporated following the realisation that the act of murdering people over differences of religious interpretations is not considered religiously motivated terrorism.

Qadri’s legal team now has a less daunting prospect of challenging the other half of the ATC’s verdict in the Supreme Court against the conviction of their client as per Section 302 of the PPC. This now opens up the space for radicals to kill as religious duty, steer clear of the ATA — and hence military courts — and then use their considerable clout to influence verdicts in civilian courts.

For four years, Mumtaz Qadri has been a constant reminder of the simmering zealotry in Pakistan. For four years, the Pakistani public has watched Qadri being elevated to virtual saint status and seen his growing invincibility. Yet they have waited for the miracle that would see justice finally done.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s April  2015 issue.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore.