Pakistan’s Sherry Rehman stands alone after colleagues’ assassinations

In the past three months, Sherry Rehman’s rambling, art-filled house in this southern city has become a self-imposed prison. The liberal lawmaker knows that for her to move about freely in Pakistan now would be to step into the cross hairs of religious radicals who have assassinated two of her like-minded colleagues this year.

Rehman’s offense, in the extremists’ view, is proposing reform of laws that make blasphemy a capital crime and that are often used to persecute religious minorities or personal enemies. Pakistan’s violent fundamentalists consider the mere idea of such reform poison, a point they made clear with the killings of Salman Taseer, governor of the eastern province of Punjab, and federal minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti.

With the deaths of her ruling-party peers, Rehman, 50, is the country’s only vocal advocate for amending the blasphemy laws — a cause she now backs mostly from home, and more quietly. Armed guards and police stand watch outside. Inside, the former journalist receives friends and colleagues, fending off pleas that she flee the country.

“I don’t want to leave,” she said in a recent interview. “I want to be able to stay here as long as possible, and if it means I’m not going to go to the shops or go to the Sunday bazaar, okay.”

At large rallies, clerics have named Rehman an apostate. In Multan, a city in Punjab province, a local politician filed a blasphemy complaint against her after she said on television, citing the Koran, that radical mullahs were wrong to defend the blasphemy laws. She and her attorneys spent weeks on the case before police decided not to bring charges.

But if extremists have sent Rehman a message to keep quiet, her secular Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has appeared to do the same. After a court sentenced a Christian woman to death on blasphemy charges in November, President Asif Ali Zardari formed a committee to review the laws and indicated he might pardon the woman. Rehman, a longtime sponsor of bills to strengthen the rights of women and minorities, authored legislation to amend the blasphemy statutes.

But as an outcry from religious groups swelled, the ruling party backed down. Its fragile coalition government was teetering, and PPP members said privately that it was not the time to stoke religious passions. In February, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said Rehman had withdrawn her bill.

That was news to her.

“These are wars you have to fight all the time,” Rehman said, shaking her head. Yet, although she does not disavow her position on the blasphemy laws, she is now cautious when discussing the topic and declines to criticize the PPP.

Most like-minded Pakistanis are doing the same. Human rights activists and English-language media condemned Bhatti’s death, but they sounded more weary than they did after Taseer’s killing. The prominent lawyers who spearheaded Pakistan’s democracy movement three years ago have stayed silent, and there has been no popular groundswell against radicalism.

Civic activists say it is the secular coalition government’s duty to galvanize demonstrators to counter the 40,000 Islamists who rallied here in January against changes to the blasphemy laws. Rehman disagrees, saying any government in the volatile country would be unwise to foment even peaceful street protests.

Islamist groups have long exploited fundamentalism to gain power in Pakistan, Rehman said, adding that the hysteria they whip up always cools. Then again, she acknowledged, the violent militancy now engulfing the country is far more dangerous than political opportunism.

“Other than appeasement, what’s the plan?” she said.

Rehman is no stranger to threats. When former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s convoy was bombed in Karachi on her return from exile in 2007, Rehman was in the car, and her back still bears burn scars. When Bhutto was killed in a gun and bomb attack weeks later, Rehman escorted her body to the hospital.

“Being scared no longer works,” Rehman said. “The physical attack happens, and you keep working the next day.”

Rehman, a former editor of a leading Pakistani newsmagazine, the Herald, joined the National Assembly in 2002. She became information minister in 2008 but resigned a year later to protest the government’s curbs on TV stations that had criticized it.

But Rehman has remained in Parliament, and she says it is there that the battle for ideas can be fought. While pushing for bills against domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, she said, she has seen politicians from religious parties compromise. She said the main task now should be righting the faltering economy, which fuels extremism.

“Tolerance is the big issue,” Rehman said. “But the government will have to deal with how people are facing the next day and getting the next meal.”

Rehman said she sees hope amid the frenzy. Clerics call with words of support. The Pakistani media, which fanned public outrage against Taseer before his assassination, have largely left her alone.

And after allegedly calling Rehman a “non-Muslim” in January, an imam who preaches near her house retracted his words after a journalist filed a complaint that could have led to incitement charges. That shows “the removal of impunity does work,” Rehman said.

Still, the imam was not punished, and clerics in other parts of the country continue to say Rehman deserves death.

“This is a sobering moment,” she said. “It may get worse before it gets better. But it has to.”

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