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Thousands Attend Funeral of Slain Pakistan Governor

  • Ayaz Gul

Pakistani police guards carry the coffin of late Punjab governor Salman Taseer during the funeral procession in Lahore on Jan 5, 2011.

Pakistani police guards carry the coffin of late Punjab governor Salman Taseer during the funeral procession in Lahore on Jan 5, 2011.

Thousands of people in Pakistan have attended the funeral of a provincial governor, a day after he was shot dead by one of his security guards. The suspect has told investigators he assassinated the high-profile political figure because of his opposition to the country's anti-blasphemy law. There has been widespread condemnation of the killing in and outside Pakistan. But some Islamic groups in the country have praised the assassin.

The slain governor of the country's powerful Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was laid to rest in the regional capital, Lahore. Tight security arrangements were in place and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was among many top leaders who attended the funeral.

The high-profile Pakistani politician from the country's ruling party was assassinated Tuesday by one of his security guards, who says he was incensed by Taseer's opposition to the national anti-blasphemy law.

Human-rights groups in Pakistan have long demanded the legislation be reformed or repealed because they say it discriminates against the country's non-Muslims and is often abused by Muslim fundamentalists and ordinary people to settle personal disputes.

The law carries the death penalty for anyone found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammad and came under the spotlight after a court sentenced a Christian mother of four to death for making blasphemous remarks. The woman insists she is innocent and Taseer had visited her in prison as part of a campaign for her release.

Human-rights activist Farzana Bari says the killing of the prominent politician has created a sense of insecurity among liberal forces in the country.

"Look at the way this guy [killer of Taseer] has done everything," said Farzana Bari. "He has done it in a public space to send this wave of terror in the country that whosoever will dare to speak they will silence their voices like that. And I do not think it is an individual, it is mindset behind that."

In recent weeks, members of the country's ruling Pakistan Peoples Party have been pushing for reforms in the anti-blasphemy law and one of them has submitted a proposed bill for debate in the parliament. The federal minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, has been among those proposing changes in the law to prevent its abuse.

"People have been killed extra judicially, people are in prison, "said Bhatti. "And most of the basis in the cases of blasphemy are personal disputes, economic reasons; political, religious and other differences. And anybody can go to the police to register a case against religious blasphemers and there is no mechanism to punish those people who file false cases."

But growing pressure from religious groups forced Prime Minister Gilani early this week to publicly state the government has never intended to change the blasphemy law.

Professor Bari alleges the change in the government's position led to the killing of the provincial governor.

"Particularly, when the government backed out and capitulated to this pressure, which was built by these extremist religious forces, Salman Taseer was actually then left alone and singled out," said Bari. "That shows a very dangerous trend that how our security forces have been radicalized, how there are sections of society which have been radicalized. And our government is completely not taking its social responsibility to protect citizens of this country who probably hold different views because the blasphemy law is clearly a discriminatory law."

On Wednesday, the accused killer was transported in a police vehicle for a court appearance in Islamabad. As he entered the court room, his supporters chanted Allahu Akbar (God is greatest) while about 300 lawyers told the judge they are willing to defend the suspect.

The assassination of Taseer came as recent defections in the ruling coalition have deprived Prime Minister Gilani of majority in parliament. He is making attempts to win support of right-wing political and religious parties that have publicly condemned proposed changes in the anti-blasphemy law.

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