The governor of Pakistan's richest and most populous province, Punjab, was assassinated in Islamabad on Tuesday by one of his bodyguards, who said he was angered by the governor's opposition to the country's blasphemy laws.
The slaying of Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer is the most prominent since the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in a gun-and-bomb attack in the garrison city of Rawalpindi outside Islamabad on Dec. 27, 2007.
Mr. Taseer, 66, was close to Mrs. Bhutto and her husband, current Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, and was a senior member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP). The fate of the PPP-led government was put into question Sunday after its coalition partner, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), withdrew its support.
According to officials and sources in Pakistan, Mr. Taseer was fatally shot as he was entering his car at Kohsar Market, a tony area in Islamabad that is frequented by Westerners and Pakistan's elite.
A knowledgeable source in Islamabad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said Mr. Taseer had been struck by nine bullets. He identified the assassin as bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, 26, who gave himself up at the scene.
The bearded Mr. Qadri was seen smiling in photographs taken soon after his arrest.
"Salmaan Taseer is a blasphemer, and this is the punishment for a blasphemer," Mr. Qadri said in comments that were broadcast on Pakistan's Dunya television.
Mr. Taseer had recently spoken out in support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman and mother of five who was sentenced to death after being accused of blasphemy. This was the first conviction of its kind for a woman in Pakistan.
"It is tragic, and it shows you how much it will cost when you stand up to do things that are right," said C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, in a phone interview from Pakistan.
The killing of a senior official by a member of his own elite bodyguard underscores U.S. concerns about the possibility of rogue Islamists in the Pakistani establishment getting their hands on the country's nuclear arsenal.
In a Feb. 4, 2009, U.S. Embassy cable released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson wrote that "our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon, but rather the chance someone working in [government of Pakistan] facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon."
Nina Shea, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said Mr. Taseer's slaying is a "very powerful strike against the forces of moderation" in Pakistan.
Punishment under the blasphemy law, which came into effect during the dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul Haq in the 1980s, ranges from life in prison to the death penalty.
While the government has not carried out any death sentences under this law, extremists often take it upon themselves to extrajudicially execute those accused in blasphemy cases.
"Being accused under this law is tantamount to being given a death sentence," Ms. Shea said, adding that it is important from a human rights as well as national security perspective to reform the law.
In recent days, the Pakistani government apparently has backed down on its stand on repealing the blasphemy law.
"It was already becoming politically impossible to move on the blasphemy law," Ms. Fair said. "Now, people that have spoken out on it have to be really concerned because of the inspiration effect that can sometimes come out of these sorts of things."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a statement strongly condemned Mr. Taseer's assassination and described his death as "a great loss."
Mrs. Clinton said she admired the governor's "work to promote tolerance and the education of Pakistan's future generations."
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, recalled his early-morning phone conversations with Mr. Taseer that the governor warmly opened with the word "Brother."
In a post on his Twitter page, Mr. Haqqani said he was heartbroken by Mr. Taseer's assassination, adding that his friend had "died for his convictions."
Mr. Taseer was an outspoken critic of extremists and the blasphemy law under which non-Muslims, including Ahmadiyas and Christians, are routinely convicted on scant evidence. In such cases, the accused can be convicted on the testimony of a single Muslim.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Mr. Qadri told police he shot Mr. Taseer because of his stand on the blasphemy law.
Mr. Qadri's actions earned him praise from some quarters. A Facebook page dedicated to him garnered more than 800 followers within hours of being created. Many of the posts complimented Mr. Qadri for his actions.
Analysts and human rights activists say Mr. Taseer's assassination would deter others from taking up the cause of repealing the blasphemy law.
"It is a serious setback for a moderate trajectory in Pakistan," Ms. Shea said.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Ashish Kumar Sen is a reporter covering foreign policy and international developments for The Washington Times.
Prior to joining The Times, Mr. Sen worked for publications in Asia and the Middle East. His work has appeared in a number of publications and online news sites including the British Broadcasting Corp., Asia Times Online and Outlook magazine.
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