ISLAMABAD: More or less two months after the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti has lost his life in a well-planned attack for his alleged opposition to the misuse of the blasphemy law.
The minister was shot dead just yards away from his mother’s house in broad daylight on Wednesday, just 57 days after Mr Taseer was assassinated for his opposition to the same law, by his own guard on Jan 4.
Riding in his official black Toyota Corolla driven by his personal driver, Mr Bhatti came out from his mother’s house located in Sector I-8/3. He was headed for office-cum-residence, in nearby I-8/4, when his car was intercepted by a white Mehran near the Tipu Sultan Road in front of a public park around eleven in the morning.
Two gunmen, clad in shalwar-kameez, disembarked from the small car and fired two bullets on the windscreen of Mr Bhatti’s car. The driver Gul Sher dived down inside the car. The gunmen then approached the left side of the vehicle and fired at the minister sitting in the rear.
After making sure that he was dead, the killers escaped from the scene. It was reported that there were other passengers in the car who were spared, but this was not confirmed till the filing of this report.
Mr Bhatti’s relatives heard the gunshots and rushed out of the house to the car. One of his relatives told Dawn that “I saw his lifeless body on the rear seat.”
An eyewitness Tahir Mughal, a neighbour of the slain minister, said: “I heard gunshots and ran out. I saw the minister lying in blood before his driver sped the car away.” He took the minister to the nearby Al Shifa International hospital.
At the hospital the minister was pronounced dead. Later his body was shifted to the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences for the autopsy. He is reported to have suffered 30 bullet injuries in the upper part of his body.
Pamphlets were discovered at the scene of the assassination, in which the Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab claimed responsibility for the attack. More commonly known as the Punjabi Taliban, which is a euphemism for the militant group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, the group claimed in the pamphlet that they had targeted Mr Bhatti for his opposition to the blasphemy law.
Although Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani rushed to the hospital when he heard the news of Mr Bhatti’s death, the scene of the minister’s death and his mother’s house remained the focus of attention all day long.
Under the grey sky and a persistent shower which symbolised the mourning of the people in general, the road where the incident had taken place was filled with police officials.
Officials from all three branches — crime scene experts, anti-terrorism officials and intelligence staff — were present on the site. While the crime scene experts were busy monitoring the site, the intelligence officials were keeping track of every visitor and passer-by.
A larger crowd was witnessed at the house. Relatives, members of the minority community and rights activists kept coming and going all afternoon. Domestic servants who were in a state of shock could barely cope with the queries of the crowds of journalists. It seemed as if foreign journalists were present in larger numbers than the representatives of the local media, as they struggled to understand, with the help of translators, the sequence of events.
Tahira Abdullah, a well-known minority rights activist, remained with the bereaved family for some time. She said that the family was hysterical with shock and grief.
Reactions and condemnations poured in all day long. Human Rights Watch called Mr Bhatti’s assassination a setback for the struggle for tolerance, pluralism and respect for human rights in the country.
The religious leadership in Pakistan followed suit. For instance, Wafaqul Madaris issued a statement condemning the act and demanded that an unprejudiced and fair inquiry be carried out into the incident.
Sherry Rehman, the former federal minister for information, who is also facing death threats for presenting a bill in parliament to amend the blasphemy law said that his murder “is a reminder to us all that we have not acted enough to protect our minorities”.