Pakistan minister shot dead on way to cabinet meeting in Islamabad

Shahbaz Bhatti – a Christian and critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws – killed by assassins who left behind Taliban-linked leaflets, say reports

Declan Walsh in Islamabad

Shahbaz Bhatti (r), pictured in 2005, was Pakistan's minorities minister.

Shahbaz Bhatti, pictured in 2005, was Pakistan’s minorities minister. Photograph: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
Pakistan’s minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, has been assassinated by unidentified gunmen in the capital, Islamabad.
Bhatti, a Christian, was an outspoken advocate of reforms to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, and his death comes two months after the Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, was gunned down just a few miles away.
Television stations said up to four gunmen opened fire on Bhatti at close range as he left his Islamabad home on Wednesday with his niece on his way to cabinet meeting.
The gunmen pulled Bhatti’s niece and guard out of his vehicle, then shot him several times inside the car. The minister was rushed to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. The killers escaped. TV stations reported they left behind pamphlets for a Taliban-affiliated group.
One report said the pamphlet has been signed by a group named “Fidayeen e Muhammad” and “al-Qaida in Punjab”, strongly suggesting a link between the killing and the blasphemy controversy.
Television pictures showed Bhatti’s bullet-ridden car and police officers entering the house amid heavy rain.
Bhatti had joined Salmaan Taseer in championing the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death last November for allegedly committing blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad.
Human rights campaigners reacted with anger and dismay to the death of Bhatti, calling it a further sign of crumbling tolerance that highlighted the chronic failure of President Asif Ali Zardari’s government to safeguard liberal voices.
“Shahbaz Bhatti was one of the few people in the government who took a brave and principled position on the blasphemy law. It appears like Salmaan Taseer before him that he has been killed for espousing this position,” said Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch.
“This bodes ill for a tolerant Pakistan and renews questions about the government’s cowardly abandonment of those within its ranks who took a stand for tolerance.”
Hasan said the assassination raised fresh questions about the safety of Sherry Rehman, a parliamentarian who also championed reform of the blasphemy laws, and who has been living in semi-hiding since January.

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