Thousands protest in Pakistan as governor's killer is hanged

Rawalpindi, Pakistan (AFP) - Thousands protested in Pakistani cities Monday against the execution of a man hailed by hardline Islamists as a hero for killing a provincial governor who was seeking reform of the blasphemy law.

Protests against the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri were held in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and several smaller cities, with demonstrators burning tyres and chanting slogans.

But mass demonstrations did not break out and most rallies dispersed peacefully after security was stepped up at flashpoints across the country of some 200 million.

These included the garrison city of Rawalpindi where hundreds of supporters gathered at Qadri's family home.

Qadri, a police bodyguard to Salman Taseer, shot the liberal Punjab governor 28 times at an Islamabad market in 2011.

He said he was angry at the politician's calls to reform the blasphemy law.

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in the Islamic republic, and Qadri was hailed as a hero by many conservatives eager to drown out calls to soften the legislation.

Critics say the law - which carries the death penalty - is largely misused, with hundreds languishing in jails under false charges.

Analyst Hasan Askari said the next 24 hours would be "sensitive" for the government, adding that Islamabad had weighed the danger of mass violence against the need to "wash away the suspicion" of sympathy for militancy.

By far the biggest protest was held in the port mega-city of Karachi Monday afternoon, with around 7,000 people taking to the streets.

In the eastern city of Lahore, around another thousand people protested, while hundreds others demonstrated in Pakistan-held Kashmir, Peshawar, Multan, and other smaller cities, later dispersing peacefully.

Up to 900 people demonstrated in the southwestern city of Quetta.

Qadri was hanged in Rawalpindi's Adiala jail early Monday (Feb 29), senior local police official Sajjid Gondal told AFP Mosques near Qadri's family home in the city broadcast the news, with cries heard from inside the house as hundreds of mourners arrived.

Paramilitary Ranger forces and police in riot gear as well as ambulances and dozens of police vehicles were stationed at the house early Monday.

But they had melted away by mid-morning, an AFP reporter said. By afternoon hundreds of mourners remained, forming a queue roughly half a kilometre long to view the body.

The funeral is expected to be held Tuesday.

"I have no regrets," Qadri's brother Malik Abid told AFP, tears rolling down his cheeks, while women chanted nearby.

He said the family had been called to the prison Sunday evening by officials who said Qadri was unwell.

But when they arrived, Qadri greeted them with the news that authorities had deceived them and that his execution was imminent.

"I am proud of the martyrdom of my son," Qadri's father Bashir Awan told AFP, adding he was ready to sacrifice all five of his other sons "for the honour of the Prophet".

Earlier, authorities blocked roads in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, bringing morning traffic to a standstill. Protesters in Islamabad burned tyres and briefly attacked a local news van.

National media played down the news on orders of the government, two senior anchors told AFP.

Most channels led their bulletins with Pakistan's win for best foreign documentary at the Oscars.

Taseer's son Shehryar said on Twitter the hanging was a victory for Pakistan, but not for his family.

"The safe return of my brother is the only victory my family wants," he wrote, referring to his sibling Shahbaz Taseer, who was kidnapped later in 2011 - reportedly by the Taliban.

As well as calling for blasphemy law reform, Taseer had been vocal in his support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who has been on death row since 2010 after being found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammed.

Qadri's lawyers drew on Islamic texts to argue that he was justified in killing Taseer, saying that by criticising the law the politician was himself guilty of blasphemy.

That argument was rejected by the Supreme Court which in December upheld the death sentence, sparking rallies.

Pakistan ended a six-year moratorium on the death penalty in December 2014. Last month authorities announced they had executed 332 people since then.