Christian Critic of Islamic Blasphemy Law Shot Dead in Pakistan
Ben Doherty SOUTH ASIA CORRESPONDENTMarch 3, 2011
Assassinated ... the Minority Affairs Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed in his official car. Photo: AFP
ANOTHER critic of Pakistan's blasphemy law has been assassinated, the second prominent politician shot dead in the capital this year.
Up to four gunmen opened fire on the car of the Minorities Affairs Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, as he was being driven to work in Islamabad yesterday.
Mr Bhatti, a leader in the ruling Pakistan People's Party, had received death threats over his opposition to the blasphemy law.Advertisement: Story continues below <iframe id="dcAd-1-4" src="http://ad-apac.doubleclick.net/adi/onl.smh.news/world;cat=world;ctype=article;pos=3;sz=300x250;tile=4;ord=2.7062086E7?" width='300' height='250' scrolling="no" marginheight="0" marginwidth="0" allowtransparency="true" frameborder="0"> </iframe>
''I was told that if I was to continue the campaign … I will be assassinated, I will be beheaded. But forces of violence, forces of extremism cannot harass me, cannot threaten me,'' he said less than two months ago.
The law carries a death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. Mr Bhatti, who was the only Christian in the cabinet, said it was being used to persecute minorities.
Christians make up less than 4 per cent of the population.
In January, the governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, another opponent of the law, was shot dead by his bodyguard. He had called for a pardon for Asia Bibi, a Christian farmhand in Punjab who has been sentenced to hang for alleged anti-Islamic remarks.
In 2009 her neighbours accused her of insulting the prophet Muhammad during an argument. She says the allegation was invented to settle an old dispute.
Her case has attracted international attention and widespread condemnation of the law.
A 17-year-old is also being held in a Karachi jail on charges that he scribbled an anti-Islamic message on a school exam paper.
No one has been executed under the blasphemy law but it is believed as many as 10 people have been killed while on trial.
Police say Mr Bhatti's car was ambushed shortly after he left his home in central Islamabad.
''Three or four armed men riding in a white Suzuki car intercepted his official vehicle,'' the police chief, Wajid Durrani, said.
The gunmen sprayed the car with bullets, dragged Mr Bhatti's niece outside, then shot Mr Bhatti inside the car.
The driver was wounded but survived, and drove Mr Bhatti to hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
The killers escaped and no arrests have been made.
Pakistani TV showed images of the bullet-riddled car and reported that pamphlets in the name of the extremist group Tanzim Al Qaida Tehrik Taliban Punjab, were found at the scene.
The police chief said Mr Bhatti did not have a guard with him when he was attacked. The minister had security at his office, but had requested none at his house.
''He was vulnerable at his residence,'' Mr Durrani said.
Mr Bhatti's assassination has raised fears for the safety of Sherry Rehman, a Pakistan People's Party MP who championed reform of the blasphemy law.
Under pressure from her party she withdrew a bill amending the law in February, and has since been in semi-hiding.
The President, Asif Ali Zardari, and Prime Minister, Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, condemned Mr Bhatti's assassination and vowed the government would not be cowed by terrorists.
But Mr Gilani said last month his party had ''no intention to amend the [blasphemy] law''.
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