Associated Press
Salman Taseer, second from right, was governor of Pakistan's Punjab province. He is seen here with U.S. Sen. John Kerry, ambassador Husain Haqqani, left, and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. Taseer's assassin has been convicted.
Risking popular anger and retaliatory violence, the judge had the courage to convict Gov. Taseer's assassin and reject any anti-blasphemy defense of the murder.

Last month, a trial court in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan rendered a significant decision that defended the tenuous cause of religious freedom in that Muslim-majority nation.

The court convicted a Pakistani security guard of assassinating Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's wealthiest province (Punjab). Taseer was a vocal opponent of Pakistan's religious extremists and one of their lethal weapons: a national anti-blasphemy law.

Anti-blasphemy laws, which date to well before the trial of Jesus that ended in his crucifixion, take various modern forms today in many (mostly Muslim) countries, and their use has been urged in the international human rights arena in recent decades. The proponents of such laws are deadly serious. For example, certain Danish cartoons first appearing in 2005 about Muhammad inflamed the Muslim world and led to hundreds of deaths.

Pakistan's version of anti-blasphemy law is among the most severe in the world, forbidding any speech or action defaming Islam or its founder, the Prophet Muhammad. It is commonly used to persecute religious minorities, and the mandatory punishment for those convicted is death.

For his defense of the rights of religious minorities, Taseer provoked both respect and fury. For example, shortly before his assassination, the governor made headlines by seeking clemency for Asia Bibi, an impoverished Christian mother of five who — in his view — had been wrongly sentenced to death for insulting Muhammad.

Clerics responded by burning the governor in effigy, issuing religious edicts against him, branding him an apostate and threatening his life. In January, one of the governor's own security guards gunned him down in broad daylight. The shooter made no secret of his motives in televised remarks: "Salman Taseer is a blasphemer, and this is the punishment for a blasphemer."

Although Pakistan's prime minister condemned the assassination and declared three days of national mourning for the governor, many publicly supported his assassin instead. Thousands of Pakistanis showered rose petals on him for his first court appearance. A group of 500 Muslim clerics signed a statement condoning the killing. Most Pakistani politicians refrained from calling for his conviction, perhaps fearing they could become the next target of his sympathizers.

But the judiciary held firm. Risking popular anger and retaliatory violence, the judge had the courage to convict Gov. Taseer's assassin and reject any anti-blasphemy defense of the murder, explaining: "No one can be given the license to kill anyone in any condition, therefore, the killer cannot be pardoned as he has committed a heinous crime." Due to death threats, the judge and his family have been sent abroad. The shooter is now appealing his conviction and death sentence, so further tests of Pakistan's resolve remain ahead.

The assassin's conviction comes in the context of a recent U.S. effort by both the Bush and Obama administrations to oppose the influence of anti-blasphemy laws in the international human rights arena. Beginning in the 1990s, the large bloc of Muslim countries in the United Nations campaigned to get international support for anti-blasphemy restrictions, akin to those in Pakistan, through international resolutions in the U.N.'s main human rights body.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a group of 56 member countries, introduced annual resolutions to condemn any expression that could be construed as "defamation of religions," a modern, innocuous-sounding formulation of the anti-blasphemy agenda.

For a decade, these resolutions passed. Cleverly pressing the West's soft spots, OIC marketed these anti-defamation restrictions as a type of "hate speech" law, reflected in official statements like: "Unrestricted and disrespectful freedom of opinion creates hatred and is contrary to the spirit of peaceful dialogue and promotion of multiculturalism."

In 2006, focused by the Danish cartoons reaction, the United States began actively criticizing these resolutions as an affront to freedom of religion and speech. Since then, various U.S. parties — including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, members of Congress and NGOs like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — have lobbied vigorously in the United Nations against such resolutions.

Opposition to this anti-defamation campaign may have now forced a turning point. This year, the OIC decided not to risk introducing its usual resolution at all. In contrast, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution against religious discrimination and violence, eschewing any anti-blasphemy language or other restrictions on free speech. The U.S. government had urged this approach, advocating for "more speech" as the antidote to offensive speech or expression.

Mindful of this larger struggle between free speech and "blasphemy" in the international human rights arena, we should applaud Pakistan's judiciary for another favorable turning point (if the ruling stands). The judge's courage vindicated Gov. Taseer's own argument: religious extremism will be overcome only through the "continuous functional position of a democratic system," including free religious speech.

Hannah C. Smith is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board and Senior Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm that defends religious liberty for people of all faiths.