- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The assassination of a second high-profile critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy law Wednesday snuffed out any hope that the government will amend the decree that prescribes the death penalty for those insulting Islam.

Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for minorities affairs and the only Christian in the Cabinet, was gunned down in the back seat of his car while leaving his mother’s home in a residential neighborhood in Islamabad on Wednesday.

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

On Jan. 4, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s most-populous state of Punjab and another critic of the law, was gunned down by a bodyguard in Islamabad.

Mr. Bhatti, a Roman Catholic who faced numerous threats to his life for his stand against Pakistan’s blasphemy law, was not accompanied by his own bodyguards, whom he rarely took on visits to his mother’s home.

A witness who saw his bullet-riddled car described it to The Washington Times as an “ordinary black Toyota Corolla, without bulletproofing.”

Mr. Bhatti’s assassins left leaflets at the scene of the crime, proclaiming they killed him because he committed blasphemy.

“With high-level champions of reform being gunned down for their stance, there will be no chance of reform,” said Nina Shea, commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in Washington.

Ms. Shea warned that extremists are gaining the upper hand.

“They are winning the battle for the soul of Pakistan,” she said.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned Mr. Bhatti’s assassination.

“He most courageously challenged the blasphemy laws of Pakistan under which individuals have been prosecuted for speaking their minds or practicing their own faith,” Mr. Obama said.

“[He was] clear-eyed about the risks of speaking out, and, despite innumerable death threats, he insisted he had a duty to his fellow Pakistanis to defend equal rights and tolerance from those who preach division, hate and violence.”

Mrs. Clinton, who recently met Mr. Bhatti, described him as “a patriot and a man of courage and conviction.”

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani also condemned the assassination.

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.

Ms. Siddiqa described the idea of a liberal Pakistani society as a nonstarter.

“Successive governments have made compromises with the religious right, so there never has been a liberal agenda in Pakistan,” she said.

Ms. Curtis, who was in recently in Pakistan, said it was clear to her that the “thin layer of liberal thinkers in Pakistan is getting thinner by the day.”

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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