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Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's Minorities Minister, assassinated by gunmen

By Haris Anwar and James Rupert
(c) 2011 Bloomberg News
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 3:23 PM

As many as four men ambushed Shahbaz Bhatti, 42, yesterday as he left home without a security escort, Geo television reported, citing a police official, Bin Yamin. Bhatti was dead when brought to the city's Al-Shifa Hospital, the institution's spokesman, Azmatullah Quraishi, said by telephone.

Bhatti, a Roman Catholic and former leader of Pakistan's main minority-rights group, was killed eight weeks after Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, was shot to death by one of his bodyguards. Both men had called publicly for changes to the country's blasphemy law, which prescribes the death penalty for anyone convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Bhatti's assassination is likely to deepen fears of even talking about the blasphemy law, said S.K. Tessler, a Christian retired army colonel who served as minority affairs minister under the military regime of former president Pervez Musharraf.

Religious intolerance in Pakistan is growing largely because "many Muslims see the U.S. war in Afghanistan as a war against Islam," Tessler said in a telephone interview. "That has led on to more pressure and violence against the Christians and other minorities."

Of the blasphemy law, Tessler said "no one should even mention this sensitive issue. We have to live here."

In Washington, President Barack Obama denounced "this horrific act of violence" and offered condolences to Bhatti's family.

"He was clear-eyed about the risks of speaking out, and, despite innumerable death threats, he insisted he had a duty to his fellow Pakistanis to defend equal rights and tolerance from those who preach division, hate, and violence," Obama said in a statement. "He most courageously challenged the blasphemy laws of Pakistan under which individuals have been prosecuted for speaking their minds or practicing their own faiths."

Amid escalated Islamic militant violence and Pakistan's worst-ever monsoon flooding in 2010, the country's $167 billion economy has slowed its growth to what the central bank estimated Feb. 2 will be a rate of 3 percent in the year through June, down from a government target of 4.5 percent. The government has faced protests over high food prices, electricity shortages and its effort to broaden the country's narrow tax base, a demand made by the International Monetary Fund last year as it withheld more than 10 percent of an $11.3 billion loan.

For Pakistan's economy, "some degree of violence and political uncertainty is already built in" to expectations, said Mohammed Sohail, chief executive officer at Topline Securities Ltd. in Karachi, the country's financial center. "There may be a marginal, short-term shift in sentiment, but I don't see a material shift in investors' attitude after this killing."

An estimated 509 people died in sectarian attacks last year in Pakistan, the highest total since the New Delhi-based South Asia Terrorism Portal began compiling figures in 1989, according to the monitoring group's website. Many of those have been members of the minority Ahmadi sect or non-Muslims, mainly Christians or Hindus, who form 5 percent of the population.

The blasphemy law was passed in 1987 under the army rule of General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq as part of his policy of building a more explicitly Islamic state in Pakistan. While no one has been executed by the state under the law, killings over alleged blasphemy cases have included seven Christians amid riots in 2009 in Gojra, Punjab, and two shot dead in July in the city of Faisalabad.

Controversy over the law escalated in November after a court used it to sentence a Christian women, Aasia Bibi, to death. The government of President Asif Ali Zardari expressed readiness to pardon Bibi and consider changes to the law, which religious conservatives have used to conduct a "reign of terror" against minorities, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

On Jan. 10, Pope Benedict XVI called on Pakistan to abrogate the law.

Islamic militants have protested, holding street rallies and promising violence if the government tried to change the law, and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has said it will not do so.

"This chapter is closed for us," said Qamar Zaman Kaira, spokesman for the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party. "Still, there are some elements in our society who want to spread anarchy by using this issue. This is a long war within our society and I think it will take a lot of sacrifices," Kaira said.

Bhatti wasn't using guards assigned to him by authorities at the time of his attack, Wajid Durrani, Islamabad's inspector general of police, told reporters at the site of the assassination.

"He had instructed that these security officers remain at his office and not accompany him home," Durrani said.

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