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Salman Taseer assassination points to Pakistani extremists' mounting power

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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.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the killing in a statement Tuesday, saying she had met Taseer and "admired his work to promote tolerance and the education of Pakistan's future generations."

Taseer's apparent killer cited his boss's stance against a controversial anti-blasphemy law in justifying his actions. As the embattled, pro-U.S. PPP sought in recent days to win back defecting allies that also include a small Islamic party, it had already said it would not support a proposal to change the blasphemy statutes. That left Taseer one of the few vocal champions of the move, which hard-line religious organizations had labeled a Western conspiracy.

The laws have drawn scrutiny since a Christian woman was sentenced to death in November for allegedly criticizing the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Taseer had called for her pardon, leading religious groups to denounce him as an "apostate" and burn effigies of him during a nationwide strike last week in support of the law. One Muslim cleric has offered $6,000 to anyone who kills the woman, who remains in jail.

Even as Pakistani television stations were dominated Tuesday by commentators condemning rising religious intolerance, supporters of Qadri created a page for him on Facebook. Page visitors called him a "hero" and praised his "awesome job." No major unrest over the killing was reported, but authorities said they were on high alert.

"This shows how the religious extremists want to impose their agenda to terrorize the society," Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities affairs and also a proponent of changing the laws, said in an interview. "This cowardly act cannot stop us who are raising our voice."

Yet in a country where Taliban militants increasingly flex their muscles through bombings, religious hard-liners have great power to intimidate even though polls show that their views are not widely shared. Last week's strike by Islamic organizations drew few supporters to the streets, but shops in major cities closed - and many merchants said they did so under threat.

Human rights activists say the blasphemy laws are also abused by extremists, who use them as a tool to persecute minorities or opponents by bullying police and courts into arrests and convictions. The laws were strengthened during the 1980s rule of Islamist military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

Taseer lamented the power of the religious mob in an interview last summer following bombings of mosques belonging to the Ahmadi sect, whose members identify themselves as Muslims but are barred by the constitution from "posing" as such. Taseer - whose appointed position gave him little direct power in Punjab - condemned the provincial government of Sharif's center-right PML-N for what he called its tolerance of radical religious groups.

"Extremist people are not in the majority," Taseer said at the time. "This is a very narrow minority, but . . . they are always prepared to do and die. That is their strength."

On Dec. 24, he had posted on his Twitter account: "My observation on minorities: A man/nation is judged by how they support those weaker than them not how they lean on those stronger."

Authorities said Taseer's guard, a member of an elite Punjab provincial police force that provides VIP security, shot the governor multiple times outside the Kohsar market in Islamabad, a small shopping plaza near his residence that is frequented by foreigners. The guard proudly surrendered to police afterward, according to local news reports.

Most political parties condemned the killing, and the government announced a three-day mourning period, during which political activity would be suspended. Zardari, to whom Taseer was close, called the assassination "ghastly."


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