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Under the blasphemy law, non-Muslims, including Ahmadiyas and Christians, are routinely convicted on scant evidence. The law, which came into effect during the dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul Haq in the 1980s, carries penalties that range from life in prison to a death sentence.

While the government has not carried out any death sentences, extremists often take it upon themselves to kill those accused in blasphemy cases.

Sherry Rehman, a member of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), had introduced a bill in parliament to amend the law. However, she was reportedly forced to give up her effort following political pressure.

Pakistan’s fragile government has been reluctant to push for reform of the blasphemy law for political reasons.

Ayesha Siddiqa, an Islamabad-based political analyst, said Mr. Zardari personally supports reform but is surrounded by “visibly right-wing people” who oppose any change to the blasphemy law.

Leonard Leo, chairman of the USCIRF, said the law fuels extremism and Mr. Zardari must find the political courage to enact meaningful reforms.

“We believed [Mr. Bhatti] was Pakistan’s brightest light of hope for the advancement of freedom of religion and human rights more broadly,” Mr. Leo said. “Who will now take up his work? Do the highest levels of Pakistan’s government have the resolve, courage and leadership to do so? To date, they haven’t demonstrated those qualities.”

Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the government began retreating from reform after Mr. Taseer was killed.

“The PPP-led government assessed it had no choice other than to back away from reform of the blasphemy laws following the assassination of Salmaan Taseer,” Ms. Curtis said. “It would be more appropriate to blame the policies of Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence services, which allow religious extremists to flourish and go unpunished,” she said.

The blasphemy law came into the spotlight in November when a court in Pakistan sentenced Aasiya Bibi, a Christian mother of five, to death after her neighbors accused her of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Like Mr. Taseer, Mr. Bhatti had worked for Ms. Bibi’s release.

In an interview with the Christian Post last month, Mr. Bhatti talked about the threats to his life.

“I received a call from the Taliban commander, and he said, ‘If you will bring any changes in the blasphemy law and speak on this issue, then you will be killed,’” Mr. Bhatti told the newspaper.

“I don’t believe that bodyguards can save me after the assassination [of Salmaan Taseer]. I believe in the protection from heaven,” he added.

The assassinations of Mr. Taseer and Mr. Bhatti have raised the specter of extremists dominating the political discourse and future of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation in South Asia.

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