Pak`s Christian minister killed over blasphemy law

Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in Pak Cabinet, is the 2nd leader after Punjab Guv Salman Taseer to be slain for opposing blasphemy law.

Last Updated: Mar 03, 2011, 09:27 AM IST

Islamabad: Pakistan`s Minority Affairs
Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and vocal opponent of the
controversial blasphemy law, was on Wednesday gunned down by Taliban
militants as he drove out of his mother`s house here, nearly two
months after Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was killed for
demanding reform of the harsh statute.

Three to four gunmen ambushed the car of 42-year-old
Bhatti, a Catholic, at about 11.20 am local time and
indiscriminately fired at him while sparing his driver, police
said, adding at least eight bullets hit the minister.

Bhatti was attacked shortly after he drove out of his
mother`s house close to his official residence. Reports said
he visited his mother every morning.

Only Bhatti and his driver Gul Sher were in the car, a
dark-coloured Toyota Corola Altis, and the minister was not
accompanied by any security guard at the time of the attack.

According to BBC, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed
responsibility for the attack on Bhatti, the only Christian
member of the Pakistan Cabinet who had been receiving threats
to his life for seeking changes in the blasphemy law which
imposes the death penalty for insulting Islam.

"This man was a known blasphemer of the Prophet
(Mohammad)," the group`s deputy spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan
told BBC Urdu service.

"We will continue to target all those who speak against
the law which punishes those who insult the prophet. Their
fate will be the same."

Bhatti is the second senior leader of the ruling PPP to
be assassinated in nearly two months for opposing the
blasphemy law. On January 4, Punjab Governor Taseer was gunned
down by a police guard who was angered by his opposition to
the controversial statute.

The gunmen who killed Bhatti threw several pamphlets in
Urdu at the site of the attack that linked Bhatti`s
assassination to his opposition to the controversial blasphemy
law.

The pamphlets, issued by `Tanzim Al Qaida Tehrik Taliban
Punjab`, said any one who insulted Prophet Mohammed would be
given the death sentence. They also said any sort of blasphemy
or change in the blasphemy law would not be tolerated.

"There were three to four attackers who intercepted the
minister`s car a short distance from his home. The attackers
targeted only the minister and not the driver," Islamabad
police chief Wajid Durrani told reporters.

The driver ducked below the dashboard as the gunmen
sprayed bullets at the minister.

The attackers, who were travelling in a white Suzuki
Mehran car, were clad in shalwar-kameez and escaped after the
brazen attack in broad daylight.

An autopsy performed at the Pakistan Institute of Medical
Sciences showed that Bhatti was hit by at least 20 bullets in
the face, chest and stomach, Geo News channel quoted unnamed
sources as saying.

Bhatti was on his way to a Cabinet meeting when he was
attacked.

The meeting, chaired by Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani,
observed two minutes` silence for Bhatti and condemned his
killing. It also discussed the security situation in the wake
of the assassination.

Small groups of Christians and other minority communities
protested against the assassination here. Christians form an
estimated 1.6 per cent of Pakistan`s 185 million population.

The Vatican also condemned the murder of the
Catholic politician as an "unspeakable" act of violence.

Though Bhatti had been provided two escort vehicles with
police and paramilitary guards, he had instructed the security
detail to wait at his office as he visited his mother, police
chief Durrani said.

He acknowledged that there was a threat to Bhatti`s life
and that was the reason why he had been provided two escort
vehicles while other ministers were given only one.

"The protection given to him was not present and we have
learnt that the minister had instructed the security detail to
wait at his office," Durrani said.

Bhatti had been receiving death threats since 2009, when
he had spoken out against attacks on members of the minority
Christian community at Gojra in Punjab province.

He received fresh threats, including from Taliban, last
year after he backed Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to
death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed, and
campaigned for reforms in the harsh blasphemy law.

Parliamentarian Akram Masih Gill, also a Christian, said
he had been told by Bhatti that he had been receiving threats
and had not been provided adequate security.

"He told me he had taken up the matter with Interior
Minister Rehman Malik, President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime
Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani," Gill told the media.

"Bhatti wanted some reforms in discriminatory law. His
killing will affect Pakistan`s honour across the world. The
country`s minorities are not safe and the Prime Minister has
to take notice. The culture of tolerance in Pakistan is
ending," Gill said.

President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani condemned the
killing of Bhatti and pledged that such acts will not deter
the government from eliminating extremism and terrorism.

Zardari, who was in Karachi, said in a message that the
government would "continue to stand firm in its stance and
would not bow to the extremists and terrorists".

Gilani, in a separate message, said the persons involved
in "this heinous crime will not be spared at any cost".

He directed the Interior Ministry to conduct a thorough
probe in coordination with all law enforcement agencies to
arrest those responsible for the killing.

PTI