Minister is murdered for being Christian
Published 03/03/2011 | 05:00
Pakistan's only Christian minister was assassinated yesterday after receiving a series of death threats over his support for persecuted Christians and his opposition to the country's blasphemy law.
Shahbaz Bhatti (42), the minorities minister, was ambushed in his government car by four gunmen who appeared to have detailed knowledge of his movements and security arrangements. He was being driven to his mother's home in an Islamabad suburb.
According to the minister's driver, two men fired in the air and then raked the rear passenger seat where Mr Bhatti was sitting. The driver, who was wounded, told police he had survived by crouching down in the front of the car. Mr Bhatti had been hit by 20 bullets.
The assassination follows the murder in January of Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor, who had led the campaign to reform the blasphemy law.
Both men had supported Aasiya Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to hang for allegedly making derogatory comments against the Prophet Mohammad.
They believed the blasphemy law was being used to make false claims against religious minorities.
The law makes it a capital offence for anyone to make "derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet". It has its origin in the Indian Penal Code under British colonial rule and was introduced to prevent communal conflicts.
Under Gen Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's military dictatorship in the 1980s, the laws were amended to focus on derogatory comments against the Prophet Mohammed and the death penalty was introduced, though no one has yet been executed.
In the weeks before the attack, Mr Bhatti had spoken of death threats against him but insisted that he would not increase his security. The knowledge his killers had of his security has raised questions over whether police were involved.
Mr Bhatti normally travelled flanked by two security vans with armed guards, but officials said he refused security when he visited his mother's home.
Farahnaz Ispahani, an aide to President Asif Ali Zardari, said Mr Bhatti's murder was part of a "concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive and humanist voice in Pakistan".
Mr Zardari and Yusuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan's prime minister, have so far declined to support the campaign to reform the blasphemy law. They are worried about the depth of public support for the law. The bodyguard who shot dead Mr Taseer was showered with petals by supporters when he appeared in court in January. In the same month, more than 50,000 people demonstrated in Karachi in support of the law. (© Daily Telegraph, London)