Killing of Pakistan Minister Highlights Peril of Questioning Blasphemy Laws

BY News Desk  March 3, 2011 at 6:06 PM EDT

The late Pakistani Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti prays for slain Punjab Governor Salman Taseer at the Fatima Church in Islamabad on Jan. 9, 2011. (Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images)

The late Pakistani Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti prays for slain Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer at the Fatima Church in Islamabad on Jan. 9; Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images

In the months before he died, Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti knew his stance on the country’s strict blasphemy laws, which ban statements that cause insult to the Prophet Muhammad, could lead to his death. Bhatti, the only Christian serving in the Cabinet, said in a video interview, “I’m ready to die for a cause, I’m living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles.”

On Wednesday, Bhatti was shot to death in Islamabad after leaving his mother’s home in a nearby suburb. Pamphlets credited to al-Qaida and a Taliban faction were found on the scene; a Taliban spokesman later claimed responsibility for the attack.

The day after his death, Christian protesters gathered in cities around Pakistan to express outrage at his death. Police have reportedly arrested as many as 20 people in connection with the shooting.

His death follows the Jan. 4 assassination of Salman Taseer, the moderate governor of Punjab province who also opposed the law. Taseer was gunned down by his bodyguard in Islamabad. The shooter has since been showered with flower petals by supporters for his actions. Bhatti’s criticism had been less direct than that of Taseer, who had called it a “black law”, but both had said it was often misused to target minorities.

Both high-profile assassinations have drawn attention to a culture of fear in Pakistan, fueled by extremist groups who punish those who are accused of violating — or speak about repealing — the law.

And despite expressing anger at the killings themselves, Pakistan’s leaders have been reluctant to push for reform or repeal of the law. President Asif Ali Zardari did not attend Taseer’s funeral out of fear for his own safety. Former information minister Sherry Rehman submitted a bill amend the law to the National Assembly, but the bill was later withdrawn after Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani declined to back the proposal. She has since faced numerous death threats.

“They are under a lot of pressure from extremist groups,” said Pamela Kling Takiff of Human Rights First, which recently released a report on blasphemy laws. “There’s a lot of fear involved. The climate is toxic. It’s become dangerous to even discuss blasphemy, let alone commit it.”

A recent report from GlobalPost highlights other prominent figures who have been killed for speaking out:


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had met with Bhatti in recent months, said she was “shocked and outraged” by his assassination,telling the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “[h]e was a man of great conviction. He cared deeply for Pakistan, and he had dedicated his life to helping the least among us.”

Leonard A. Leo, the chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, said Thursday that the U.S. government had tried in recent weeks to bolster his security following a visit to Washington last month.

Several members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, urged the government to send a delegation to Bhatti’s funeral, led by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who released a statement saying, “Bhatti devoted his life to defending the most vulnerable-he is literally a modern day martyr” and that “I fear others will be silenced if justice is not brought to bear in Pakistan.”

His death comes at an especially tense time in the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, following the arrest of a CIA contractor who shot two Pakistanis in what he said was an attempted robbery.

The law is often used to settle scores, or in cases where proof of its violation is almost impossible to establish. Asia Bibi, a Christian, was sentenced to death last fallafter being accused of blasphemy during a water dispute with her neighbors. “Both Bhatti and Taseer recognized how problematic these laws are for ,minorities and devoted their lives to trying to change that,” said Takiff, who cites numerous examples of punishment based solely on accusation.