Assassination of Pakistani governor Salman Taseer rocks Islamabad

Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab Province, was seen widely as one of the country's most important political figures.

In this Nov. 20, 2010, file photo, Salman Taseer (r.), the governor of Pakistan's Punjab Province, listens to Pakistani Christian woman Aasia Bibi (l.) at a prison in Sheikhupura near Lahore, Pakistan. Taseer was assassinated on Tuesday, Jan. 4, in the Pakistani capital by one of his guards apparently because he had spoken out against the country's controversial blasphemy laws, officials said.

The governor of Pakistan’s most populous and powerful province, Punjab, was assassinated Tuesday in the country's capital, Islamabad.

Salman Taseer was shot by a member of his personal security detail while in Kohsar Market, a posh area of the capital popular among foreigners, authorities say.

"[His security guard] confessed that he killed the governor himself because he had called the blasphemy law a black law," said Interior Minister Rehman Malik.

Mr. Taseer drew anger from Islamists for his outspoken opposition to the country's blasphemy laws, which have recently led to a Christian woman being sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad. The killing comes at a time of political crisis for the country, as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government, in which Taseer was a key leader, struggles to hold on to power after a key coalition partner quit the government Monday.

A wave of sympathy?

The killing of Taseer was the second major political assassination in recent years following the killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. Her death sent the nation into convulsions and sparked a wave of sympathy that political experts believe helped the PPP ascend to power in the 2008 elections.

A similar wave of sympathy this time around could create a “cooling period” among Pakistan’s opposition parties, which are considering tabling a vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, and give the government breathing room, according to a leading Pakistani political analyst who asked to remain anonymous given the sensitivities of commenting on the issue at this time.

The killing may also galvanize the PPP base and liberal opponents to militancy.

A supporter of liberal values

To his supporters, Taseer's flamboyant personal life, as well as his outspoken opposition to the Taliban and the country's blasphemy laws, represented the liberal values of the PPP. The Daily Times newspaper, which he owned, regularly highlights issues of concern to women and the country's religious minorities.

Farahnaz Ispapahani, a member of parliament from the PPP and a presidential aide, told the Monitor: “We’re all in a state of shock at the moment. They feel they’ve lost a leader and lost a father. He was an incredibly brave man. He lived by the true principles of the PPP.”

Following the announcement of Taseer's death, PPP workers in Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province, congregated outside the governor's house to mourn.

What next?

Taseer was reportedly shot nine times by a member of the Punjab Elite Force – his own security – who surrendered and was immediately arrested. An eyewitness told local media that the man, named by police as Malik Mumtaz Qadri, left his vehicle and opened fire on the governor as he sat in his car.

President Asif Ali Zardari has ordered a high-level inquiry into the death as the ruling party announced a two-week period of mourning.

Taseer was appointed by President Zardari as governor of Punjab in 2008 following a successful career as a businessman. The federally appointed governor was seen as a counter balance to the conservative PML-N party, which leads the provincial government in Punjab. During Pakistan’s judicial crisis in March 2009, he briefly ruled the province directly after President Zarari declared emergency rule, a move that outraged the opposition.

His outspoken support in favor of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman currently facing the death penalty on charges of blasphemy, earned him condemnation and death threats from Islamist groups. He was also widely criticized by the right for drinking in public.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik confirmed the arrest saying Qadri has confessed to assassinating Taseer because of his support for the release of Aasia Bibi and the repeal of blasphemy laws.

“It would be exceedingly unfortunate if it turns out that the governor’s call for sanity following the death sentence of Aasia Bibi’s on charges of blasphemy or differences with political opponents in any way led to his assassination,” said Mehdi Hasan, chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a statement. “The fact that the killer was a policeman is a matter of acute concern and shows the extent to which the services have been infected by intolerance.”

According to Raza Rumi, news and features editor of The Friday Times, a Pakistani weekly, the killing “will bolster Jihadi groups in the Punjab who will feel they have gained a victory.”

“More importantly for Pakistan is that any dissenting or liberal voice is not safe until they adhere to the Jihadi agenda,” he adds.

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