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Extremists Laud Pakistan Governor Slay Suspect

Mumtaz Qadri, center, is cheered by supporters as he arrives at court in Islamabad, Pakistan Jan. 5, 2011. Extremists are celebrating Qadri as a hero for allegedly killing Punjab state governor Salman Taseer, who supported moderate reforms.
AP Photo
LAHORE, Pakistan - 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.

Later Wednesday, a political adviser to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said an assessment of Qadri by the Punjab police force months before had deemed him a security risk and said he should not be assigned to protect high-profile figures because of his "extremist views."

Qadri has already become a hero in Pakistan among Islamist fundamentalists who have a growing sway in this South Asian nation. A rowdy crowd slapped him on the back and kissed his cheek as he was escorted inside the court. The lawyers who tossed the rose petals 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.

Faisal Raza Abdi, political adviser to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, said he'd seen an assessment by the Punjab province police from months before stating that Qadri was a security risk because he had extremist views.

Abdi said the fact that he was allowed to guard Taseer, despite the assessment's warnings against such assignments, suggested others may have played a role in the killing. He did not say when the assessment was dated but that it was from a top police official.

"I do not think this is an individual act. It is a well planned murder," he told The Associated Press by phone.

A senior police official investigating the case said Qadri at one point said he had informed the other security guards about his plans, but that his statement may have been a ploy to weaken the case against him.

Another senior police official involved in the case said Qadri had claimed 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.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case.

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.

In light of the protests, political allies questioned why Taseer hadn't been better protected.

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.