The confessed killer of a liberal Pakistani governor pleaded guilty Monday to a murder he said was justified under Islam, while outside the court supporters bearing flowers and cards wished him a happy Valentine's Day.
Mumtaz Qadri shot dead Punjab province Gov. Salman Taseer in January while serving as one of his bodyguards. Qadri has told authorities he killed Taseer because the governor spoke out against harsh Pakistani blasphemy laws that impose the death sentence for insulting Islam.
The assassination horrified Pakistan's relatively small liberal elite. However, many Pakistanis, including some in the religious establishment and in legal circles, have praised Qadri - a sign of the spread of Islamic fundamentalist thought in this South Asian nation.
Qadri was indicted Monday on a murder charge by an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi city during a session closed to media. When the judge asked Qadri if he'd intentionally killed Taseer, the 26-year-old said he didn't consider his actions illegal, said defense lawyer Shuja-ur-Rehman Raja.
The lawyer quoted his client as saying he dealt with "an apostate" as required under Quranic and Islamic laws.
Prosecutors and legal experts said Qadri's statement was considered a guilty plea under Pakistani law, despite his efforts to justify the killing it. Raja also characterized it as a guilty plea.
"In such a scenario, the onus now falls on the accused to prove his act as being justified after pleading guilty before the court," said Shaukat Siddiqi, a criminal lawyer.
Outside the court, dozens of Islamic activists carried banners saluting Qadri and demanded his immediate release. A small group of college students gave police flowers and a Valentine's Day card they wanted delivered to the defendant.
"Happy Valentine!" read one of the banners.
When asked whether devout Muslims should even celebrate Valentine's Day, one protester replied, "Islam is not opposed to love."
Pakistan's judicial system is opaque and confusing because it mixes secular and Islamic law. The courts have abysmal conviction rates, especially in terrorism cases where witnesses and court officials can be intimidated.
However, prosecutors promised to pursue justice in this case. An evidence hearing was set for Feb. 26.
"We have lots of evidence. We will ensure the maximum sentence," state prosecutor Saiful Malook told The Associated Press.
The blasphemy laws are a deeply sensitive subject in Pakistan, where most residents are Sunni Muslims. Human rights groups have long warned that the laws are open to abuse because people often use them to settle rivalries or persecute religious minorities.
No one has been put to death for blasphemy because courts typically throw out cases or commute the sentences. Still, some who are released are later killed by extremists or must go into hiding. Others accused of blasphemy spend long periods in prison while waiting for their cases to wind through the courts.
Taseer, a prominent member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, campaigned for a reform of the laws after a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death last year for allegedly insulting Islam's prophet, Muhammad.
But in a sign of how scared the largely secular ruling party is of Islamist street power, party leaders didn't support Taseer's move and, since his killing, have said they would not touch the existing laws.