Salman Taseer assassination points to Pakistani extremists' mounting power

The governor of Pakistan's wealthiest and most populated province was shot dead Tuesday by one of his bodyguards who told interrogators he was angry over the politician's opposition to blasphemy laws.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 11:30 AM

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Under tight security, thousands of people gathered in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore on Wednesday for the funeral of the slain governor of Punjab province, a chief ally of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Salman Taseer, an outspoken liberal in an increasingly intolerant nation, was shot multiple times in this capital city Tuesday by one of his police guards. The guard then surrendered to police and told them he had killed the politician for his public stance against Pakistan's controversial anti-blasphemy laws.

Allies and workers of Taseer's Pakistan People's Party who packed into the Governor's House in Lahore praised Taseer's bravery Wednesday and condemned the radicalism that they said spurred his killing.

But in a stark display of the polarization in Pakistan, a group of 500 Muslim clerics, meanwhile, praised his assassin, 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri, and warned people against mourning Taseer. In Islamabad, lawyers tossed rose petals on Qadri as he was produced in a court, where a judge remanded him in custody, news services reported.

As an additional security measure, Taseer's body was flown, not driven, to a graveyard, where he was buried with state honors. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, who is struggling to keep his coalition government in power following the defection of a key ally, attended the funeral along with other top PPP leaders. Zardari was not present.

Geo, a Pakistani news channel, reported Wednesday that Qadri had informed his fellow guards about his plans to assassinate Taseer. The report, which cited unnamed intelligence officials, also said authorities had previously flagged Qadri as a "security risk," yet he was still assigned to Taseer's VIP security detail.

Taseer's slaying, apparently at the hands of one of his own guards, marked the most prominent political assassination in Pakistan since former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's death three years ago.

The razor-tongued governor of Pakistan's most populous province was known for speaking out on behalf of women and religious minorities, and his slaying stunned the nation and alarmed U.S. officials. It also further rocked Taseer's ruling Pakistan People's Party, which is desperately trying to keep its government afloat following a key ally's defection to the opposition Sunday.

The secular PPP condemned the killing and promised a swift investigation, but its weakened position undermines its ability to crack down on religious extremists.

In timing that underscored those limitations, Taseer, 66, was shot in an upscale area of Islamabad as Pakistan's main opposition party was across town demanding that the government agree within three days to implement a list of reforms, or risk collapse.

After the killing, the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said it would allow three additional days for the changes, including a slash in government spending and the reversal of unpopular fuel price increases.

Taseer was a chief ally of President Asif Ali Zardari, who in 2008 appointed him governor of Punjab, Pakistan's wealthiest province. But Sharif's party rules the province, making Taseer's assassination a blow to the federal government's influence there.

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