LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — Lawyers showered the suspected killer of a prominent Pakistani governor with rose petals when he arrived at court Wednesday and an influential Muslim scholars group praised the assassination of the outspoken opponent of laws that order death for those who insult Islam.
Mumtaz Qadri, 26, made his first appearance in an Islamabad court, where a judge remanded him in custody a day after he allegedly sprayed automatic gunfire at the back of Punjab province Gov. Salman Taseer while he was supposed to be protecting him as a bodyguard. A rowdy crowd slapped him on the back and kissed his cheek as he was escorted inside. The lawyers who tossed handfuls of rose petals over him were not involved in the case.
As he left the court, a crowd of about 200 sympathizers chanted "death is acceptable for Muhammad's slave." The suspect stood at the back door of an armored police van with a flower necklace given to him by an admirer and repeatedly yelled "God is great."
More than 500 clerics and scholars from the group Jamat Ahle Sunnat said no one should pray or express regret for the killing of the governor. The group representing Pakistan's majority Barelvi sect, which follows a brand of Islam considered moderate, also issued a veiled threat to other opponents of the blasphemy laws.
"The supporter is as equally guilty as one who committed blasphemy," the group warned in a statement, adding politicians, the media and others should learn "a lesson from the exemplary death."
Jamat leader Maulana Shah Turabul Haq Qadri paid "glorious tribute to the murderer ... for his courage, bravery and religious honor and integrity."
Mumtaz Qadri told interrogators Tuesday that he shot the liberal Taseer multiple times because of the politician's vocal opposition to the harsh blasphemy laws.
Qadri is a name commonly adopted by devout men of the Barelvi sect.
Mumtaz Qadri is accused of pumping more than 20 rounds from his assault rifle into Taseer's back in an Islamabad street on Tuesday. The commando, who had been assigned to protect his victim, has yet to be charged with a crime.
A senior police official who interrogated Qadri said he was determined to stand by his confession that he was proud to kill a blasphemer. The official said Qadri had looked for a chance to kill the governor since joining his security squad on Tuesday morning, but did not get the opportunity at the presidential or senate buildings.
His chance came when the squad was called to escort Taseer from a restaurant on Tuesday afternoon, the official said.
After the attack, Qadri threw his weapon down and put up his hands up when one of his colleagues aimed at him, pleading to be arrested alive, the official said.
In the northwest city of Peshawar, more than 40 students rallied for Qadri's release. "All of us students are proud of him, of what Mumtaz did," protester Faisal Khan said.
Taseer, 66, was a senior member of the ruling party and close ally of U.S.–backed President Asif Ali Zardari. He is the highest–profile political figure to be assassinated since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was slain three years ago.
An outspoken moderate in a country increasingly beset by zealotry, his death was a reminder of the growing danger to those in Pakistan who dare to challenge Islamist extremists.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and other senior ruling party officials joined up to 6,000 mourners who gathered under tight security to pay silent homage to him at the funeral at his official residence in the eastern city of Lahore.
His assassination added to the turmoil in nuclear–armed Pakistan, where the government is on the verge of collapse and Islamic militancy is on the rise.
Khusro Pervez, the commissioner of Lahore, said city authorities had deployed additional police to keep the peace before and after the funeral. Thousands of police guarded the governor's residence and other key sites.
The governor's residence has been the scene of angry street protests in recent weeks against Taseer's call to repeal blasphemy laws that order death for anyone convicted of insulting Islam and his support for a Christian woman sentenced to die for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
Political allies questioned why Taseer hadn't been better protected.
In a nod to his campaign for legislative reform, the leading Islamabad newspaper Dawn reported in a front page headline: "Blasphemy law claims another life."
Although courts typically overturn convictions and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.
Taseer's admirers called the governor a courageous opponent of Pakistan's shift in recent years away from South Asia's Sufi–influenced moderation to the more fundamentalist approaches to Islam found in some areas of the Middle East.
His death also came as a blow to the ruling party, which is struggling to retain power after the defection of a key ally from its governing coalition that left it without a majority in parliament.
Associated Press (News - Alert) writers Munir Ahmed and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Ashraf Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.