ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Gunmen shot dead Pakistan’s minorities minister on Wednesday for challenging a law that mandates the death penalty for insulting Islam, the second top official killed this year over the blasphemy law.
The assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, is the latest sign of the deep political instability in the nuclear-armed U.S. ally. Frequent militant attacks and chronic economic problems have raised fears for the country’s future.
Pakistani Taliban militants claimed responsibility for killing Bhatti, with a Taliban spokesman saying the minister was a blasphemer.
Bhatti was shot in broad daylight while travelling in a car near a market in the capital, Islamabad, police said.
“The initial reports are that there were three men who attacked him. He was probably shot using a Kalashnikov, but we are trying to ascertain what exactly happened,” said Islamabad police chief Wajid Durrani.
The windscreen of Bhatti’s car had four or five bullet holes and blood covered the back seat. A hospital spokesman said Bhatti, who had spoken out against the anti-blasphemy law, received several wounds.
The law has been in the spotlight since last November, when a court sentenced a Christian mother of four to death.
On January 4 the governor of the most populous province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who had strongly opposed the law and sought a presidential pardon for the 45-year-old Christian farmhand, was killed by one of his bodyguards who had been angered by the governor’s stand.
Bhatti was travelling without security, having left two escorts provided by police at home, Durrani said.
“There was no protection when he left the house,” the police chief said. “There was just a private driver with him. We don’t know about the minister’s thinking, but we had provided him two escorts because he was under threat.”
Pakistani Taliban militants had called for Bhatti’s death because of his attempts to amend the law and a militant spokesman, Sajjad Mohmand, said they had killed him.
“He was a blasphemer like Salman Taseer,” Mohmand said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“PROTECTION FROM HEAVEN”
Last month, in an interview with the Christian Post, Bhatti said he had received threats.
“I received a call from the Taliban commander and he said, ‘If you will bring any changes in the blasphemy law and speak on this issue, then you will be killed’,” Bhatti told the newspaper.
“I don’t believe that bodyguards can save me after the assassination (of Salman Taseer). I believe in the protection from heaven.”
The January killing of Taseer was widely praised by hardline Islamist groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the country’s largest religious party.
But the party denounced Bhatti’s murder.
“We condemn this killing. This is a conspiracy and it may be an attempt to divert attention from the case of Raymond Davis,” senior JI leader Farid Paracha told Reuters.
Davis is an American CIA contractor on trial for killing two Pakistanis. The case has been taken up by religious parties which have called for Davis to be hanged.
Bhatti’s killing is likely to further deter any attempt to change the blasphemy law that mandates death for anyone who speaks ill of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad.
Sherry Rehman, a former government minister and member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, which included Bhatti, tried to change the law last year but the party leadership forced her to stop in the face of opposition from religious conservatives.
The law has its roots in 19th Century colonial legislation to protect places of worship, but it was during the military dictatorship of General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s that it acquired teeth as part of a drive to Islamise the state.
Liberal Pakistanis and rights groups believe the law to be dangerously discriminatory against tiny minority groups.
Under the law, anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty, but activists say the vague terminology has led to its misuse.
Christians who make up about two percent of the population have been especially concerned, saying the law offers them no protection. Convictions hinge on witness testimony and often these are linked to personal vendettas, critics say.
Convictions are common although the death sentence has never been carried out. Most convictions are thrown out on appeal, but angry mobs have killed many people accused of blasphemy.