January 15, 2011 / 1:12 PM / in 7 years

Politics makes convicting Pakistani assassin difficult

<p>Dilpazeer Awan, a property adviser and the brother of Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, the gunman detained for the killing of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, sits in his office near his house in Rawalpindi January 15, 2011. REUTERS/Mian Khursheed</p>

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (Reuters) - The brother of a Pakistani police guard who assassinated a liberal politician for opposing the country’s anti-blasphemy laws is optimistic he will never be prosecuted -- and he probably has good reason to be.

After the police guard, Mumtaz Qadri, pumped 27 bullets into Punjab Governor Salman Taseer on January 4, he was viewed as a hero by many Pakistanis, highlighting how deeply religious extremism has penetrated mainstream Pakistani society.

How the case unfolds in Pakistan, a U.S. ally seen as vital in the war on militancy, will be closely watched by the United States and other Western countries. Some Western countries accuse the government of being too soft on Islamist extremism, one of many destabilizing forces in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Qadri’s brother Dilpazeer Awan, the only brother of six in the family who does not work for the government, said about 17 state investigation agencies were still questioning relatives on whether he had any ties to political or religious groups.

Awan said he believed Qadri acted on his own.

Whatever the case, the widespread and emotionally-charged support Qadri enjoyed after the killing suggests the already unpopular government would risk a huge backlash if Qadri is convicted, or even if he is merely brought to trial.

“If God is willing, even the government will support him when the time comes. We are hopeful that the judiciary will do justice,” Awan told Reuters.

Even though Qadri confessed, analysts say the government is likely to tread cautiously because influential religious parties had succeeded in demonizing Taseer, and Pakistanis who opposed the killing have been silenced by fear.

“The religious right will be up in arms if he is convicted. They will mobilize their supporters in the streets,” said political analyst Riffat Hussein.

“There is always the possibility that a lower court will rule against him, then there will be an appeal and there will be enormous pressure on the Supreme Court from lawyers and Islamists to rule in his favor.”

More than 500 lawyers have offered to defend Qadri for free.

Taseer, who was close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had championed the cause of a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws which critics say are used to target religious minorities, often to settle personal scores.

Qadri shot Taseer at close range at an Islamabad shopping center. Other bodyguards did not react until he surrendered.

NO EXTREMIST, SAYS BROTHER

Awan described his 25-year-old brother as an ordinary, dedicated member of an elite police force charged with fighting terrorism and protecting VIPs, not an extremist, as some police officials have said.

“He was a very caring, loving person. He was much better than all of us,” said Awan, a property adviser and motor dealer in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, also Qadri’s home town.

A poster on a street outside his dingy office described Qadri as a ghazi, a Muslim who fought a holy war and survived.

Qadri went to an English-language school, Awan said, not one of the thousands of Pakistani religious seminaries which have churned out students highly susceptible to calls for jihad.

In that is true, Qadri is a potent example of a less tangible, but more comprehensive threat to stability than Taliban insurgents -- an assault on Pakistani liberalism itself.

Qadri, father of a two-month-old boy, is in good spirits in prison, where he is being treated as a hero, said Tariq al Haqqani, who said he was one his lawyers.

“If the government wants to survive politically it should go to Taseer’s family and ask them to forgive Qadri,” he said.

Editing by Chris Allbritton and Ron Popeski

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