A Pakistani court charged a police guard Monday with the murder of a politician who opposed the country's anti-blasphemy laws, a killing that exposed deep fissures in Pakistani society.
Mumtaz Qadri, who admitted to killing Punjab governor Salman Taseer on January 4, gained wide support, especially from Islamists who see liberal politicians such as Taseer as straying from Pakistan's Islamist credentials.
The charges have been framed against Qadri and the prosecution has been asked by the court to present evidence in the next hearing, the prosecutor, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
Taseer, who was close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had championed the cause of a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy law.
Critics say the law has often been misused against Pakistan's tiny religious minorities and to settle personal scores. Taseer had sought changes to the law, angering hardline Islamist groups.
After Qadri pumped 27 bullets into Taseer in broad daylight at an Islamabad shopping centre, he was viewed as a hero by many Pakistanis, highlighting how deeply religious extremism has penetrated mainstream Pakistani society.
Qadri's lawyer, Tariq Dhamial, quoted him as saying in court before the charges were read: I have taught a lesson to the apostate Salman Taseer in the light of the teachings of the Koran.
How the case unfolds in Pakistan, a U.S. ally fighting Taliban insurgents which is seen as vital in the war on militancy, will be closely watched by the United States and other Western countries.
Since the killing, thousands of people have rallied in support of Qadri, demanding his release.
Another lawyer for Qadri said a large number of people, including university students, gathered outside the main prison in the city of Rawalpindi, where his closed hearing was held.
Some held placards which read Happy Valentine's Day to Mumtaz Qadri. Others brought flowers. The guards refused to deliver them to Qadri.
More than 500 lawyers have offered to defend Qadri for free.
Some Western nations accuse Zardari's government of being too soft on Islamist extremism, one of many destabilising forces in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Pakistani rights activists hailed Qadri's indictment.
Qadri's statement is a complete confession of an uncondonable and brutal murder, human rights campaigner and former law minister, Iqbal Haider said, All sane people will appreciate this indictment.
But the leader of an Islamist party defended the 25-year-old Qadri, who belonged to an elite police force charged with fighting terrorism and protecting VIPs.
He (Taseer) himself was responsible for his killing as he had hurt the religious sentiments and feelings of the whole nation by terming the blasphemy law as a 'black law', Tariq Mehboob, deputy secretary general of Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan party said.