ISLAMABAD // A Pakistani court on Saturday convicted a policeman of murder and sentenced him to death for killing one of the country's top liberal politicians who wanted to reform controversial blasphemy laws.
Salman Taseer, Punjab governor and member of the main ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was shot dead outside an upmarket coffee shop close to his residence in the leafy capital Islamabad on January 4.
His police bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, immediately confessed to the murder and was praised by hundreds of hardline Islamists who have demanded he be released from prison, saying Taseer deserved to die.
Qadri said he killed Taseer over his calls to amend the blasphemy law, which sentences to death those convicted of defaming the Prophet Mohammed, after backing a Christian mother of five on death row for alleged blasphemy.
"The court has awarded my client with death. The court announced the death sentence for him," Shuja-ur-Rehman, one of Qadri's lawyers, told AFP.
Judge Pervez Ali Shah announced the verdict at an anti-terrorism court sitting behind closed doors in the high-security Adiyala prison in the capital's twin city of Rawalpindi, the lawyer said.
More than 500 people rallied outside the prison, chanting slogans in support of Qadri such as "Free Mumtaz Qadri" and "We are ready to sacrifice our lives for the honour of Prophet Mohammad," said an AFP photographer.
The protestors later blocked off a main road in the city by setting tyres alight.
Some of the stick-wielding protesters forced shops to close but later all dispersed peacefully.
"The judge has also ordered him to pay a fine of 200,000 rupees ($2,300)," the lawyer said.
The defence said they would appeal against the verdict. Under Pakistani law, they have seven days to file the petition.
Whether Qadri will hang will remain open even after the appeals process is exhausted. According to Amnesty International, Pakistan has had an informal moratorium on executions in place since late 2008, before which it had hanged at least 36 people that year.
Pakistan has been increasingly criticised in the West for its tough anti-blasphemy laws and over the persecution of the tiny non-Muslim minority.
But the government says it has no intention of reforming the 1986 law, underscoring the power of the hardline religious right in a conservative Muslim country long associated with Islamist militant groups.
The country has been weakened by rampant corruption, economic crisis and a wave of bombings that has killed around 4,700 people since government troops stormed a radical mosque in Islamabad in 2007.
Taseer's killing was the most high-profile political assassination in Pakistan since former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was murdered in a gun and suicide attack on a Rawalpindi election rally in December 2007.
Two months after Taseer's killing, a Catholic government minister for minority affairs who had vowed to defy death threats over his opposition to the blasphemy laws was also shot dead in Islamabad.
Taseer had attracted widespread condemnation from hardline religious groups over his support for Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death in November 2010 for alleged blasphemy in the central province of Punjab.
One of his sons, Shahbaz, was abducted by gunmen in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city, on August 26. He had been given police protection but was abducted from a wealthy neighbourhood while on his way to work.
Police have so far drawn a blank on who was responsible but say Taseer's family has been repeatedly threatened to withdraw murder charges against Qadri.
No one has ever been sent to the gallows under Pakistan's blasphemy law. Those sentenced to death have had their sentences overturned or commuted.
But activists say the legislation is used to attack others out of personal enmity or business disputes.