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Pakistan's 'murderer saint' - Supporters build shrine to 'honor' governor's assassin

Supporters of Mumtaz Qadri, an Islamist hanged for killing a Pakistani governor, are constructing a shrine around his grave, local media reported. DW examines why Qadri has acquired a "saint-like" status in the country.

Sattar Khan, DW's Islamabad correspondent, confirmed that a "shrine" was under construction near the capital to "honor" Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged in February for murdering Salman Taseer, a governor of Pakistan's eastern Punjab province.

Qadri's supporters and commoners have already started visiting the under-construction shrine, which is being supervised by the "Mumtaz Qadri Shaheed Foundation," according to Pakistan's "Dawn" newspaper.

"The shrine is attracting the attention of people from all over the country. Qadri's supporters have pumped millions of rupees into the construction of this shrine. Some Muslim clerics are openly glorifying Taseer's murderer," Sattar Khan said.

In South Asia, shrines are generally associated with saints with "miraculous" spiritual qualities, and thousands of devotees visit these places throughout the year. A Dawn report said that "already, the stories circulating around the shrine are acquiring an air of myth."

"To pray at his grave is a guaranteed way to have it answered, for Qadri has earned a place at the side of the Prophet through his sacrifice," a bystander told Dawn.

Qadri shot Taseer 28 times in broad daylight in Islamabad on January 4, 2011, and was sentenced to death in October the same year. Qadri, who was Taseer's bodyguard, showed no remorse over the killing. He said he murdered the former governor for his efforts to amend the country's blasphemy laws. He was showered with rose petals by right-wing groups as he was taken to jail by the authorities. Subsequently, some mosques were named after him, and huge portraits of him were erected across the country.

Following Qadri's death, some 10,000 protesters marched against his hanging on February 29. They gathered in the city of Rawalpindi, about 14 kilometers (nine miles) from Islamabad, and then marched into the capital.

For a majority of Pakistanis, blasphemy is a punishable crime and many believe that Qadri didn't do anything wrong by killing Taseer. That is why the news of Qadri's hanging was received with grief and anger by his supporters, with Islamic groups taking to the streets across the country. The protesters were chanting, "Qadri, your devotees are countless and your sacrifice will not go in waste."

Pakistan Rawalpindi Beerdigung Trauermarsch Mumtaz Qadri (Reuters/F. Mahmood)

Thousands of people attended Qadri's funeral in February

Experts say that right-wing groups fear Qadri's hanging would set an example and could lead to amendments in the blasphemy laws and the secularization of the country.

Government inaction

It is obvious that extremist groups in Pakistan consider Qadri their hero, but the South Asian country's secular people are alarmed that the authorities have not taken any action against those who are building the Qadri shrine.

"The authorities do not want to act against extremist organizations because they want to use them as proxies against India and Afghanistan," Dr. Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a former professor at the Islamabad-based Federal Urdu University, told DW.

"There are many sympathizers of extremist groups in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. If the government is serious about eliminating these groups, I believe they can be rooted out within no time," Khan added.

Collective intolerance

Pakistan has witnessed an unprecedented surge in Islamic extremism and religious fanaticism in the past decades. Islamist groups, including the Taliban, have repeatedly targeted religious minorities in the country to impose strict shariah, or Islamic law.

Rights activists say that intolerance is growing in Pakistani society.

"The days are gone when we said it was a small group of religious extremists, xenophobes, hate-mongers and bigots who commit such crimes," Karachi-based journalist Mohsin Sayeed told DW. "Now the venom has spread to the whole of Pakistani society."

Pakistan APMA Solidaritätsmarsch (APMA)

Activists say the blasphemy laws are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas

Rights activists have demanded reforms to the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the dictator Zia-ul-Haq in the mid-1980s. They say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.

But if you ask people on the streets whether they are in favor of the repeal of the controversial blasphemy laws, their answer would likely be no.

"It is not about amending or repealing the law (blasphemy law), or making new laws; those who insult our religion should not go unpunished," a student in Lahore told DW.

A test case for Pakistan

While Qadri's supporters build a shrine to remember him, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, has been has been languishing in prison for more than six years.

A few months after Bibi's conviction in the blasphemy case, Salman Taseer was murdered by Qadri. Qadri said he had killed Taseer for speaking out against the blasphemy laws and in support of Bibi.

The judges of the Pakistani Supreme Court were to hear Bibi's appeal against a death sentence in October, but they adjourned the hearing for an indefinite period. A similar hope that the Pakistani judiciary might pardon Bibi and eventually release her was dashed in 2014 when the Lahore High Court ruled to uphold her 2010 death sentence.

If the Supreme Court eventually reverses the death sentence, right-wing parties and groups are likely to take to the streets.

Asia Bibi (picture-alliance/dpa)

Human rights group demand Pakistani authorities release Asia Bibi

Bibi's family has been living under constant fear since 2010. The Christian woman's husband, Ashiq Masih, has been fighting a desperate battle for the life and freedom of his wife ever since. Masih has asked for presidential clemency for Bibi and has written to President Mamnoon Hussain, seeking permission to move her to France, where the Council of Paris unanimously adopted a proposal to award honorary citizenship to Bibi in March.

"We are living a life on the run" Masih told DW. "Our lives are being threatened. We receive death threats constantly and are moving from one place to another - and we try to support each other."

His family's life has been destroyed, he said: "I spent almost 45 years of my life in my native village. I had many friends there. But now I do not want to go back."

Masih is also scared. He is afraid of being recognized as Asia Bibi's husband in public. "This is why I almost never speak with Muslims. I am frightened that they know who I am."

Religious discrimination in Pakistan is not a new occurrence but it has increased manifold in recent years. Pakistan's liberal sections are alarmed by the growing influence of religious extremists in their country. Rights activists complain that the Islamists enjoy state patronage, while on the other hand liberal and progressive voices have to face the wrath of the country's security agencies.

Additional reporting by Sattar Khan, DW's Islamabad correspondent.

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