The supervising police officer of the bodyguard accused of killing a Pakistani politician had asked for his removal from all sensitive security duties because of his extreme religious views, an investigator said on Thursday.
The accused killer, identified as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, said he was angered by outspoken Punjab governor Salman Taseer's opposition to Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, reports Reuters.
A senior police official investigating the case said Qadri had been declared a "security hazard" and his supervising officer had written to the Punjab Home Department and said he should be removed from VIP detail.
"He had views like an extremist and that was the reason (for his removal)," the official told Reuters.
Qadri's supervisor, Nasir Durrani, is now heading the Punjab government's investigation into the murder.
Taseer's killing is likely to intimidate further those pushing for a more liberal and secular vision of Pakistan, a strategic US ally fighting a Taliban insurgency.
He was shot 14 times at close range at a shopping centre frequented by foreigners in the capital Islamabad.
Taseer, a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had championed the cause of a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws which critics say are used to target religious minorities, often to settle personal scores.
Investigations are under way to determine if other Elite Force police officers at the scene of the killing were involved because they had not acted quickly enough, said the investigator.
Qadri opened fire with an automatic assault rifle before surrendering, witnesses said.
Taseer's assassination occurred during a new political storm in Pakistan. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani's government is trying to survive a defection to the opposition of one of its main coalition partners.
The threat of a no-confidence vote from the opposition appears to have faded. But analysts say the opposition will slowly try to squeeze the government, which is already under intense pressure on several other fronts.
Securing the next payment of an $11 billion International Monetary Fund loan propping up the economy will require implementing politically unpopular reforms.
Millions of Pakistanis are growing frustrated at widespread corruption, power cuts, poverty and rising inflation-- all problems that can push young men to join militants groups.
Taliban fighters linked to al Qaeda have stepped up suicide bombings despite military offensives on their strongholds.
Raising the spectre of deeper turmoil, senior officials are suggesting that Taseer's killing was politically motivated, rather than the work of a lone religious fanatic.
"We believe that this political murder is being given another spin and investigations are being side-tracked," state minister for communications Imtiaz Safdar Waraich told reporters after visiting Taseer's grave in his hometown of Lahore.
"It is a conspiracy against Pakistan and its institutions. We (the ruling Pakistan People's Party) don't think the investigation is being carried out in the proper and speedy manner it should have been," he added.
Waheed Anjum, who said he was one of Qadri's defence lawyers, said: "With his permission, I am telling the media that he has said that no one else was involved in this (killing)."
The blasphemy laws have widespread support in a country that is more than 95 percent Muslim, and most politicians are loath to be seen as soft on the defence of Islam. Taseer, however, was an outspoken critic.
Taseer's killing highlighted the divide between secularism and rising religious conservatism in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Some are treating Qadri as a hero.
As soon as a armoured police vehicle transporting him arrived at an anti-terrorism court, about 400 lawyers and members of an Islamist political party chanted. "Look. See who has come. The lion has come." He was showered with rose petals.
Some see him as a symbol of religious intolerance.
"Is anyone safe? This country is day by day becoming less and less tolerant and that's the frightening part," said Amina Ansari, an employee at a power sector company.
Chaos at hearing of assassin
Chaos engulfed a court hearing for the alleged assassin of a liberal Pakistani politician on Thursday as Islamist protestors forced police to backtrack on plans to relocate the session, reports AFP.
The grinning policeman, who confessed to murdering Salman Taseer for his progressive views, has been hailed a hero by the powerful religious right, highlighting how deep the conservative grip on the nuclear-armed country.
Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri was showered with rose petals for a second day as he arrived at an anti-terror court in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, more than seven hours after media first gathered in anticipation of the event.
The judge had ordered Qadri to appear after he was charged over Tuesday's assassination, and several hundred Islamist lawyers and madrassa students descended on the premises in a show of support for the 26-year-old.
As the crowd became increasingly vocal, Islamabad authorities told AFP that they wanted to relocate the hearing to the capital, where TV footage showed a makeshift court created at a heavily protected municipal building.
"The Islamabad administration has issued a notification to conduct a hearing in the Mumtaz Qadri case in Islamabad," administration official Amir Ahmad Ali told AFP, declining to announce when and where exactly Qadri would appear.
An armoured car was then seen arriving, presumably with Qadri inside, but in Rawalpindi the crowd prevented the judge from leaving the premises.
"We requested the judge that legally he cannot go to Islamabad to hear the accused and he accepted our request," lawyer Malik Waheed Anjum told reporters.
"The judge ordered Islamabad police to present the accused in his court in Rawalpindi," he added.
An AFP reporter described how an armoured vehicle drew up outside the premises, showered with rose petals, before Qadri was escorted inside, his face cloaked from view.
Members of the main ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) to which Punjab provincial governor Taseer belonged, earlier alluded that his killing was part of a wider plot, slamming security failures that led to his death.
It was the most high-profile assassination in Pakistan since ex-PPP prime minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in December 2007. Horrified moderates have warned that liberal voices are being silenced.
Qadri told police he killed the governor to silence his efforts to reform laws that make defaming the Prophet Mohammed punishable by death.
"The martyrdom of Mr Salman Taseer is a conspiracy against Pakistan and Pakistani institutions," said Imtiaz Safdar Warraich, a junior minister in PPP-led government, which lost its majority shortly before the assassination.
"The people behind this assassination should be exposed immediately... There was a serious security lapse," he said.
Questions have been asked about why no policeman or guard apparently made an attempt to overpower the 26-year-old shooter.
"Telling colleagues about his (Qadri's) intention, asking to be arrested alive and the silent spectator role of policemen deployed at the crime scene raise too many questions," Warraich said.
PPP Law Minister Babar Awan criticised a "huge criminal security failure".
"The protection of the constitutional head of a province was entrusted to murderers. Why were those declared a security risk assigned to VIP duty?"
Interior Minister Rehman Malik alluded to a wider conspiracy to destablise Pakistan, which is on the front line of the US-led war on Al-Qaeda and where bomb attacks have killed 4,000 people since July 2007.
"We know how much money is being pumped in (to destablise the country) and if we don't act wisely it will explode like a bomb and we won't be able to face the consequences," Malik said.
A leading mainstream Sunni Muslim group of 500 scholars and clerics praised Qadri and warned other politicians of the same fate if they spoke out against blasphemy laws, which rights campaigners say fuels Islamist extremism.
Taseer refused to back off his calls to reform despite threats to his life and the PPP-led government saying it would not amend the legislation, in the face of a national strike.
He also called for clemency for a Christian woman sentenced to death under the legislation last November.