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Murder of Christian lawmaker: Can Pakistan check Islamic extremism?

Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and Pakistan's minority affairs minister, is the second top official in the past two months to be killed after opposing harsh blasphemy laws. Critics say the country isn’t doing enough to protect minorities.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent, Staff Writer / March 2, 2011

During a May 16, 2007, press conference in Islamabad, Shahbaz Bhatti displayed a threatening letter that a Christian resident of Charsadda town received. On March 2, gunmen killed Mr. Bhatti, Pakistan's government minister for religious minorities, highlighting a growing intolerance for reforming harsh blasphemy laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.

Anjum Naveed/AP

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Islamabad, Pakistan; and New Delhi

A leading Pakistani Christian lawmaker who had campaigned for reform of the country’s blasphemy laws was shot dead on Wednesday, adding to concerns the government is unwilling or unable to check Islamic extremism.

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Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs and the second politician to be targeted for this reason in as many months, was leaving his mother’s house for work when his car was attacked by two gunmen carrying machine guns, according to multiple eyewitnesses. He died while being taken to hospital, having received eight bullet wounds, according to Islamabad Police Chief Wajid Ali Khan.

Pamphlets dropped on the scene by Mr. Bhatti’s killers and signed by the Pakistan Taliban accused him of having “insulted the prophet” and warned “others who try to reform the blasphemy laws will meet the same fate.” In January, Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab, was killed under similar circumstances in a posh market area of Islamabad. The failure to prevent such attacks, though both politicians received credible threats beforehand, is indicative of the low priority given to maintaining law and order protecting minorities, say some experts.

According to Mehdi Hassan, chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Pakistan’s political parties are so bitterly divided it makes it extremely difficult to unite against rising extremism. “Our political leaders do not view security as a top priority problem,” he says, adding: “At this time, Pakistan is already isolated in the international community and its image is at lowest ebb, and our major political parties and leaders are not realizing this.”

Bahadur Khan, an eyewitness from a restaurant overlooking the crime scene, told the Monitor that Bhatti's car was intercepted by attackers in a small white Suzuki car. “One gunman came out and began firing from the side of the car, at which time Bhatti’s driver escaped. He then opened fire from the front of the car,” says Mr. Khan. The gunman was able to drop pamphlets before getting back in the car and “calmly driving away.”

Questions were raised in early February about inadequate security for Bhatti. Unlike other ministers who have bulletproof vehicles and dozens of guards, at the time he reportedly had only two security guards and no armored car.

“I am getting threats and was warned that I would be beheaded and would be meted out the treatment similar to Mr. Taseer,” Bhatti told The News in February.

According to Nelson Azeem, one of two remaining Christian lawmakers in parliament, “Mr. Bhatti discussed his lack of security with fellow minority lawmakers many times. He made these concerns known to the prime minister and president, but they did nothing about it.”

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