ISLAMABAD - Pakistan on Monday executed a man who killed the governor of Punjab province over his call to reform strict blasphemy laws that carry a death sentence for insulting Islam.
Street protests broke out within hours by supporters of the killer, who consider him a hero for defending the faith. The head of the Islamabad Bar Council called for a day-long strike of lawyers in protest against the hanging.
Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard for Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, shot him dead in the capital, Islamabad, in 2011.
"Qadri was hanged at around 4:30 a.m.," senior police officer Rizwan Omar Gondal said. The execution took place in the city of Rawalpindi outside Islamabad.
After his arrest, Qadri told police he killed Taseer because the governor had championed the cause of a Christian woman sentenced to death in a blasphemy case that arose out of a personal dispute. Taseer had said the law was being misused and should be reformed.
Qadri's attorney said his client told him he had no regrets for killing the governor.
"I have met him twice in jail. He said that even if Allah gave me 50 million lives, I would still sacrifice all of them," lawyer Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry said.
Protesters briefly blocked the main road between Rawalpindi and Islamabad on Monday after news of the hanging broke. Police later dispersed them and closed off the road to prevent more demonstrations.
Chaudhry predicted larger demonstrations coinciding with Qadri's funeral, which his legal group said would be held on Tuesday.
"From what we are seeing, this protest movement is only going to increase," he said.
Late in 2011, an anti-terrorism court handed down a double death sentence to Qadri for murder and terrorism. The sentence was appealed and upheld by the Supreme Court late last year.
More than 100 people are charged with blasphemy each year in predominantly Muslim Pakistan, many of them Christians and other minorities.
Conviction of blasphemy carries a death sentence. No one has yet been hanged, but those convicted languish in prison.
Controversy over the law has exposed the growing gap between religious conservatives and liberals in Pakistan, with hard-line religious leaders considering Taseer a blasphemer himself for even criticizing the law.
Some lawyers showered Qadri with rose petals when he first arrived in court days after the killing. The judge who first convicted him was forced to flee the country after death threats.
(Reporting by Asad Hashim)