Blasphemy law victim: One more silenced

Shahbaz Bhatti falls to assassins’ bullets; Tehreek-i-Taliban Punjab claims responsibility for murder.

Umer Nangiana/Zia Khan March 03, 2011

ISLAMABAD: The brazen assassination of Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti on Wednesday might have shocked the nation, but in one of his last interactions with the media, he seemed ready, and reconciled with his fate.

“I know I am target number one for them (extremists) now after they succeeded in eliminating Salmaan Taseer (Punjab’s slain governor),” said Shahbaz Bhatti talking to The Express Tribune and a correspondent from a German newspaper on Monday, two days before his assassination in the capital.

“And frankly, let me tell you, I think they will get me one day.”

“But,” added the minister defiantly, “I won’t change my thinking towards a certain issue on the dictates of someone. I’ll continue to pursue my ideals for Pakistan; my dreams for the country.”

‘One day’ turned out to be two days later on an overcast Wednesday morning.

Bhatti was shot dead in broad daylight in the federal capital.

The only Christian minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, 42-year-old Bhatti had been receiving frequent death threats from religious fanatics.

This is the second high-profile killing inside two months, following the murder of Salmaan Taseer, the former governor Punjab, who was gunned down by one of his security guards.

Both leaders had been vocally opposing the blasphemy law, and had been actively supporting the release of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.

“Four men in a white Suzuki Mehran intercepted the minister’s car near his mother’s house. Two of them disembarked from their vehicle, spared the driver, while one of them  sprayed bullets at the minister from the left side of the car,” Islamabad’s police chief Wajid Ali Durrani told reporters after the incident.

Gul Sher, the minister’s driver, told the police he had ducked when the assailant opened fire. According to him, the assailants fired three or four shots before firing a continuous burst.

Bhatti was taken to the nearby Shifa International hospital where he was declared dead on arrival. Police said they had collected 25 empty shell casings from the crime scene.

The post-mortem report showed as many as 30 bullet wounds on the minister’s body, including some in his skull, which ruptured it, causing his immediate death.

The report said that his upper torso was “riddled with bullets. His skull, heart, lungs, and other vital organs were all ruptured. However, there were no wounds on his limbs,” said a source in the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (Pims) where the post-mortem examination was conducted.

Brazenly, the killers did not even bother to eliminate vital evidence, including the driver, who suffered minor bruises.

Police said they had found a pamphlet left behind by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Punjab, an al Qaeda affiliate, claiming the responsibility for the attack and attributing it to Bhatti’s calls for amending the blasphemy law.

Security escort

Police chief Durrani said that the minister had been provided a security escort. However, the escort was nowhere to be seen in the aftermath of the killing.

Initially, the police said that the minister had left the security escort at his home. “This was his routine,” said Durrani.

Later, the police issued a press statement, claiming that the minister had relieved the security personnel at 11 pm on Tuesday adding that he had asked them to come to his office on Wednesday. The statement also claimed that 15 security personnel, including police commandos and Frontier Constabulary personnel, had been deployed for providing security to Bhatti – but they had been confined to his office.

According to the statement, the minister had personally restricted the security contingent.

It said that the Islamabad IG “has requested all VIPs to keep their guards with them at all times to avoid any untoward incident”. The IG said that sketches of the culprits involved in the murder had been rendered with the help of Bhatti’s driver.

It was not immediately clear if the security officials were bound to follow the minister’s instructions even if he had ordered them not to follow him. “In the case of VVIPs, security escorts were bound to follow the standard operating procedures and not the VVIP’s instructions,” said a police official. However, he did not know if that held true for VIPs, including ministers.

After Taseer’s death, Bhatti had often expressed mistrust in personal security, instead reposing his trust in “heavenly security”.

The IG said an investigation team had been formed to probe into the incident under Senior Superintendent of Police (Operations) Tahir Alam Khan and Deputy Superintendent of Police (CIA).

Message from the dead

Bhatti, it seemed, already knew of his assassins. In a prerecorded message he had given to the BBC and Al Jazeera, which he had asked to be released in case of his death, Bhatti said that he was being threatened by the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The threats would not deter him from speaking out for persecuted Christians and other minorities, he said in the one-minute message released following his assasination. “I will die to defend their rights.”

Published in The Express Tribune, March 3rd, 2011.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 03, 2011

An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti as Minister for Religious Affairs.

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