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Turmoil in Pakistan After Key Governor’s Assassination

January 5, 2011 at 4:09 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Next tonight: more violence and political turmoil for troubled U.S. ally Pakistan.

Flags across Pakistan were at half-mast today honoring Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, shot dead Tuesday in Islamabad. The funeral, held in Lahore, attracted more than 6,000 mourners and government officials, including Interior Minister Ahmed Qureshi.

TASNEEM AHMED QURESHI, Pakistani interior minister (through translator): He liked to be surrounded by people all his life, and this is the same in his martyrdom. I think the nation will have to make a conscious decision to oppose those elements who have narrow vision, kill for petty reasons, and stop freedom of expression. It is an alarming situation for the future of the country.

GWEN IFILL: The accused assassin was one of Taseer’s bodyguards, Mumtaz Qadri. He said he did it because the governor criticized the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death of anyone who insults Islam.

Upon his arrival in court today, Qadri was mobbed by supporters, chanting, “You did the right thing” and “God is great.” In Peshawar, students rallied to praise the suspect and condemn the victim.

MAN (through translator): The governor said the blasphemy law was a black law. That’s why Mumtaz killed him. He did a tremendous job. We are proud of him.

GWEN IFILL: And a group of 500 Muslim clerics issued a statement defending the killing.

SHAH TURAB-UL-HAQ QADRI, Jamaat Ahle Sunnat (through translator): Mumtaz Hussain Qadri murdered him amid overwhelmed sentiments. What was the reason behind his act? It’s because a responsible official, being governor, he ridiculed the laws of the Koran and the sunna, the ways of Prophet Mohammed. And he did it not one time, but repeatedly.

GWEN IFILL: The governor’s murder added fuel to an already heated debate over the blasphemy law. It’s been building since November, when a Christian woman was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. Last week, Governor Taseer called for the woman to be granted a pardon.

In a posting on his Twitter page last Friday, he said, in shorthand: “I was under huge pressure, sure, to cow down before rightist pressure on blasphemy, refused, even if I’m the last man standing.”

Amid the religious turmoil, Pakistan’s national government teetered on the brink of collapse. On Monday, the second largest party in the ruling coalition said it would no longer support the ruling People’s Party over economic concerns.

NASREEN JALIL, senior leader, Muttahida Qaumi Movement: Nothing over the past three years has been done by the People’s Party to improve the economy of the country. There’s rampant corruption. There is mismanagement all around. There’s misgovernance, you might say.

GWEN IFILL: And, yesterday, the leader of another large opposition party gave the government three days to accept a list of demands, or face a possible no-confidence vote.

For U.S. policy-makers, the uncertainty is already resurrecting concerns about Pakistan’s reliability as an ally in the war in Afghanistan. And it underscores fears of a nuclear nation falling apart.