Thursday, March 3, 2011

Pakistan's only Christian cabinet member assassinated

Shahbaz Bhatti, the minority affairs minister, is the second top official to be killed after opposing a blasphemy law.

By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
March 2, 2011, 3:40 a.m.

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan

Gunmen killed Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet member Wednesday in a hail of bullets outside his house in Islamabad, the second assassination this year of a top Pakistani official who had opposed the country's controversial blasphemy law.

The assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the country's minority affairs minister, underscored the reach of extremism in a Muslim, nuclear-armed country founded on the principles of minority inclusion, as well as the government's inability to protect its minorities.

Bhatti was an outspoken opponent of Pakistan's blasphemy law, which makes it a crime to utter any derogatory remarks about, or insult in any way, the prophet Muhammad, the Koran or Islam. Critics of the law say it can be exploited as a means to settle scores against adversaries or persecute minorities.

Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, called Bhatti's slaying "a grave setback for the struggle for tolerance, pluralism and respect for human rights in Pakistan."

Bhatti was leaving for work when the midmorning attack took place. Witnesses and police said three or four gunmen in a white Suzuki car drove up and sprayed Bhatti's black sedan with bullets. The attack lasted several minutes, and witnesses said more than 50 shots were fired.

Before escaping, the gunmen scattered pamphlets on the wet pavement that stated Bhatti was assassinated because of his opposition to the country's blasphemy law. The pamphlets said the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda were responsible for the slaying.

The driver survived and rushed Bhatti to Shifa Hospital, just minutes away from the minister's house, but he died before reaching the hospital, authorities and witnesses said.

Wajid Durrani, inspector general for Islamabad police, said the federal government had assigned a squad of bodyguards to protect Bhatti, but the minister did not have the guards with him at the time of the attack.

On Jan. 4, Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer was assassinated in Islamabad by Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a 26-year-old police commando assigned to guard him. Qadri admitted killing Taseer because of Taseer's opposition to the blasphemy law. When he appeared in court, lawyers showered him with flower petals and kissed his cheeks, a reaction that caused many liberals in Pakistani society to worry that support for extremism had begun to seep into mainstream society.

Robinson Asghar, a close friend of Bhatti's, said Bhatti had repeatedly asked the federal government for a bulletproof car after the Taseer assassination, but was never given one. Asghar, whose office is across the street from Bhatti's house, rushed out of his building when he heard gunfire and found Bhatti slumped in the rear seat of the car, covered in blood.

"This is something our minority community never deserved," Asghar said. "This event today has brought shame upon the whole nation."

No comments:

Post a Comment