Pakistan leader who defended Asia Noreen is murdered

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (BP)--The murder of a powerful politician in Pakistan by a member of his own security squad highlights serious instability in a nuclear-armed country where extremist Muslims are fighting for control.

Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, was murdered by Mumtaz Qadri, an elite commando who had been removed from counter-terrorism duties because of his Islamist leanings but still was assigned to protect Taseer, an outspoken critic of Pakistan's infamous blasphemy law. Taseer had publicly advocated a pardon for Asia Noreen, a Christian woman condemned to death for alleged blasphemy against Islam's prophet, Muhammad.

Qadri apparently had told other police officers in advance of his plans to kill Taseer, but no one acted to stop the plot, The Wall Street Journal reported Jan. 5. Six police officers, who also were on guard duty and failed to stop the shooting, reportedly have been detained.

Taseer had openly criticized the death sentence imposed on Noreen, a Christian farm worker, by a Pakistani court for her alleged blasphemy. An investigation by Pakistan's minister for foreign affairs concluded in November 2010 that Noreen (also identified as Asia Bibi by some media) was innocent and had been accused "on the basis of religious and personal enmity," according to media reports. A court in Pakistan blocked President Asif Ali Zardari from pardoning Noreen until an appeals court had heard her case. Radical clerics have openly called for Noreen's death in recent weeks, with one putting a $6,000 bounty on her head, The Wall Street Journal reported. Noreen remains in jail while appealing her sentence.

'LAST MAN STANDING'

Taseer had taken a stand in favor of a pardon for Noreen and noted in a Dec. 31 Twitter statement that he was under "huge pressure" to back down from his defense of Noreen but would refuse "even if I'm the last man standing," the Associated Press reported.

Taseer's murderer boasted he had killed the governor because Taseer supported pardoning Noreen, according to media reports.

Extremist Muslim clerics had been infuriated by Taseer's stance, and one group, Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat, released a statement signed by more than 500 clerics calling Taseer's murderer a "true soldier of Islam" and warning Muslims not to mourn Taseer's death, according to news reports.

"It is a warning to all intellectuals and politicians who want to change Islamic laws," the statement said, according to The Wall Street Journal. The statement added: "The supporter [of Noreen] is as equally guilty as one who committed blasphemy," the AP reported.

Taseer's supporters were demonstrating against his death in spite of the warnings. Hundreds of supporters chanted slogans outside Taseer's house in Lahore, while crowds in Multan burned tires and demanded the attackers be punished, the AP reported.

Human rights activist Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch, praised Taseer. "Taseer showed himself to be a rare politician, willing to risk his life in espousing an unambiguous position against discrimination and abuse," Hasan told the AP. An editorial in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, noted: "The governor of Punjab had been an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws and he paid the ultimate price for his rejection of the cancer of intolerance that has aggressively eaten away at this country for over three decades now."

USCIRF CONDEMNS MURDER

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned the murder.

"Governor Taseer had been courageous in his criticism of Pakistan's flawed blasphemy law, comments which ultimately may have cost him his life," USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo said in a Jan. 4 press statement. "His murder sadly demonstrates how the blasphemy law has fueled a culture of impunity that threatens both Muslims and members of minority religious communities. We urge Pakistan to eliminate its blasphemy law, which impedes freedom of religion and belief and can only weaken its internal security and stability. And, we urge the authorities to bring the attacker to justice."

While the United States and other Western countries are providing billions of dollars in aid to strengthen Pakistan's secular government, radical Muslim elements permeate virtually all levels of the government. Their influence complicates efforts to extinguish extremist movements like the Taliban, which is deeply entrenched in Pakistan's lawless northwestern region. That area's warlords provide safe harbor to radicals fighting in neighboring Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

Taseer was a leading figure in the governing Pakistan People's Party, whose leader, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, also was assassinated in 2007 by religious extremists. Bhutto's father, also a former prime minister, was executed in 1979 after a military coup led by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, who began a movement to make Pakistan a thoroughly Islamic society. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, who was Benazir Bhutto's husband, has been struggling to stabilize Pakistan's government since a key partner of his coalition abandoned him in January.

The failure to protect Taseer highlights the deep divisions in a government at a time when extremist Muslims are fighting to control a nuclear-armed country, said a Jan. 4 statement released by Stratfor, an organization that monitors significant global political, economic and military developments.

"The assassination of such a high-ranking state official at the hands of one of his own security guards over an argument on blasphemy laws underscores the nature of religious-secular conflict in the country, which has already been weakened due to a raging jihadist insurgency and a weak economy sustained only by International Monetary Fund loans," the Strafor statement said. "The assassination also comes at a time when the fragile coalition government that took office in elections after the fall of Musharraf's military regime nearly three years ago has had a prominent party abandon it, raising questions about its ability to hold onto power while the military has its hands full with a major counterinsurgency campaign against jihadists."


Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor and senior writer Mark Kelly.