ISLAMABAD: Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer, who recently angered religious zealots with his statements against the controversial blasphemy laws, was assassinated by one of his own guards in an upmarket neighbourhood of Islamabad.
Salmaan Taseer was an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws which, rights groups say, are often exploited by extremists and commoners to settle personal scores. Taseer invited the wrath of hardline clerics after he called the laws “a slur on the constitution.”
Interior Minister Rehman Malik confirmed that Taseer was killed for his criticism of the blasphemy laws. He said the assassin bodyguard – Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri – had confessed to his crime and been arrested. “Salmaan Taseer is a blasphemer and this is the punishment for a blasphemer,” Qadri said in comments broadcast on television channels.
His hands and legs bound by nylon rope, the bearded Qadri smiled confidently as he spoke to reporters from the back of a police van just after killing Taseer and surrendering.
The brazen broad daylight shooting occurred at the Kohsar Shopping Centre in Islamabad’s F6 Sector, just a short distance from where Taseer owned a home.A witness said Taseer was stepping out of his car when he was shot. “The governor fell down and the man who fired at him threw down his gun and raised both hands after shouting a slogan,” said the witness Ali Imran. However, a police official gave a different account. “Governor Taseer was not in his car. He had strolled to the restaurant with a friend for coffee. And he was shot dead while returning home,” the official told The Express Tribune.
“Taseer received 40 bullets of sub machinegun from a close range and he died within minutes,” another police official said. “Fourteen bullets pierced through his body and 26 remained inside,” added doctors at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (Pims) in the initial post-mortem report.
Police threw a security cordon around the area and detained five or more witnesses for questioning. The remaining members of Governor Taseer’s security squad – seven Elite Force commandos – were also detained.
“I heard gunshots and rushed out of a nearby restaurant where I was having lunch with a friend. I glimpsed the governor’s body lying on the road,” another witness Aly Khan said.
Officials say the high-profile murder will be thoroughly investigated, notwithstanding the assassin’s confession. “We will conduct a thorough investigation to know whether it was an individual act or someone else was behind it,” said interior minister Rehman Malik speaking in Karachi.
Qadri, who joined the Punjab police in 2002, volunteered for Governor Taseer’s security squad on Tuesday morning. “Qadri manipulated to join the squad,” a police official told The Express Tribune requesting anonymity. “The man in charge of the squad is also being questioned.”
Qadri told investigators that he had planned the assassination after Governor Taseer sided with Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy, and spoke against the blasphemy laws.
Recently, Taseer visited Aasia Bibi in prison in a campaign for her release. He wrote on his Twitter page last Friday: “I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”
Qadri’s father Malik Bashir, a carpenter by profession, and his four brothers have also been detained from Rawalpindi for interrogation.
Salmaan Taseer, a liberal and charismatic politician was one of the most moderate voices in the ruling PPP.
A dapper dresser with jet black hair, he embraced the media and modern technology, becoming one of the most prolific users of social media website Twitter as an outlet for his bold views.
The second high-profile political murder after Benazir Bhutto’s was denounced by government leaders and political parties. PM Gilani announced a three-day national mourning period.
“National flags will remain at half mast in the wake of the assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer,” said a statement issued by the prime minister’s office.
A four-member team, headed by Deputy Inspector General of police (Operations) Bani Amin, has opened investigation. It has been asked to submit its report within 24 hours.
The PPP also suspended all political activities and announced two-week mourning for its slain leader. “On the directives of Co-Chairperson Asif Ali Zardari, all political activities have been suspended,” the party’s information secretary Fauzia Wahab told journalists at the Bilawal House in Karachi. “Salmaan Taseer was loyal to the party and we salute him for his services for democracy,” she added.
The Punjab government also condemned the killing and announced a public holiday in the province on Wednesday to mourn the tragedy. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif offered condolences to the PPP and Taseer’s family. (With additional input from wires)
Published in The Express Tribune, January 5th, 2011.