As progressive Pakistani politician is mourned, his suspected killer is lauded

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 10:25 PM

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - A leading ruling party politician was buried amid tight security Wednesday, one day after his assassination, and he was lionized by supporters for his bravery and principles.

But outside the confines of Salman Taseer's cordoned-off funeral, his suspected killer was also lauded as heroic - for having slain a liberal politician who had dared to speak out against Pakistan's stringent anti-blasphemy law.

The opposing responses underscored the deep cultural fractures in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where moderate voices are often drowned out by hard-line clerics, an increasingly intolerant public and a persistent Islamist insurgency. Though the weak government led by Taseer's secular Pakistan People's Party (PPP) regularly denounces religious extremism, it has done little to dampen it.

Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was shot more than two dozen times outside an upscale marketplace in a wealthy area of Islamabad, the capital. Authorities said Mumtaz Qadri, 26, a member of the elite police force assigned to Taseer's security detail, surrendered and confessed afterward. Photos taken at the scene showed him smiling.

While thousands of top PPP officials and workers gathered for Taseer's state funeral in the eastern city of Lahore, lawyers showered rose petals on Qadri as he arrived at an Islamabad courthouse. A national group of 500 religious scholars praised him and issued a warning to those who mourned Taseer.

"One who supports a blasphemer is also a blasphemer," the group said in a statement, which warned journalists, politicians and intellectuals to "learn" from the killing. "What Qadri did has made every Muslim proud."

Police said they were investigating whether Qadri acted alone. He was to appear before one of Pakistan's antiterrorism courts, which convict few suspects.

One Islamabad police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said preliminary investigations revealed that Qadri had planned the attack for days. The official also said a top police official in Rawalpindi had previously rejected Qadri for assignment to a special counterterrorism police force because of concerns about his militant religious views.

That disclosure renewed questions about the vetting of security forces in this nuclear-armed nation, which the United States relies on - and funds with billions of aid dollars - to support the war in neighboring Afghanistan. One senior security official said there was no cause for concern.

"The presence of a few such people cannot be ruled out," the official said. "However, we believe a majority of the forces are not inclined towards extremism."

Taseer had called for leniency for a Christian mother sentenced to death under the blasphemy ban, and he supported proposed amendments to prevent use of the law as a tool for persecuting minorities or settling vendettas. But those efforts were met with threats by Islamic groups.

His killing stunned Pakistan - which has been embroiled in political crisis since a key coalition party defected to the opposition over the weekend - and was condemned by many newspapers, activists and politicians.

A headline in the Daily Times, a liberal newspaper published by Taseer, read: "A brave man cut down by fanaticism." About 150 people holding placards reading "We reject religious extremism" attended a candlelight vigil at the site of the slaying.

Yet as Dawn, another English-language newspaper, noted in a front-page article, few of Taseer's supporters defended - or even commented directly on - his views about Pakistan's ban on insults toward Islam. Nor did they focus on the violent rhetoric of some religious clerics.

Instead, most of Taseer's backers made vague statements about rising intolerance and plots. President Asif Ali Zardari, a close friend of Taseer's, said the killing might have been a "conspiracy."

"We need to find out whether it was a targeted killing or an attempt to destabilize Pakistan," said Babar Awan, the federal law minister.

One exception was the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Q, whose leader, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, said that the blasphemy law should stay in place but that a new law should be passed to prevent its being abused.

Conservative religious figures, meanwhile, implied that Taseer had tempted fate.

"Had President Asif Ali Zardari and others stopped him from speaking against the blasphemy law, such an incident may not have happened," said Mufti Munib ur-Rehman, chairman of a quasi-governmental religious committee, according to Dawn.

That view was echoed by several people interviewed in major Pakistani cities Wednesday.

"I would love to put my shoes on his grave," Muhammad Nawaz, 45, owner of a Lahore medical store, said of Taseer. "He deserved it."

In the northwestern city of Peshawar, student Ahmad Zada, 23, said: "No one will be supported for killing others on their own. But Salman Taseer should also be held accountable for issuing a highly irresponsible and objectionable statement on blasphemy."

Samina Khan, who attended the vigil for Taseer in Islamabad, scoffed at that. "The people who brainwash young lads like Qadri need to be taken to task," she said.

Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar and Aoun Sahi in Lahore contributed to this report.

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