It has been a bloody start to 2011 in Pakistan. In the evening hours of Tuesday January 4, Salman Taseer the Governor of Punjab, the country’s largest province, was gunned down by his own bodyguard in Islamabad.
The brutal assassination came in the shadow of a country wide strike called by Pakistan’s religious parties against the Federal Government’s plan to amend Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws. At the time of the assassination, Governor Taseer had been shopping at a market in Islamabad, when he was sprayed with over two dozen bullets, he died at the scene.
Governor Salman Taseer had been at the center of the effort to amend the Blasphemy laws which currently allow those accused to be sentenced to death on shaky evidentiary grounds.
In recent months, Governor Taseer had spoken against the death sentence awarded to Asia Bibi, an illiterate Christian farmhand who had a spat with other village women while working in the fields. The women accused Asia Bibi of blasphemy and she was arrested and convicted based only on their testimony. Bibi remains on death row in Sheikhupura Jail in Punjab province where her life is under constant threat.
Governor Taseer not only visited Asia Bibi in prison, but initiated a national debate on the issue urging for amendments to the law that allow Pakistan’s poverty stricken and ghettoized religious minorities to be targeted under the pretext of committing blasphemy.
In recent years, Pakistan’s minorities have repeatedly been the subject of persecution and have not been provided protection by state authorities. In July of 2010, two brothers accused of blasphemy were gunned down as they were being brought to the courthouse for a hearing. In other cases, the law has been used to prosecute not simply non-Muslims but also Muslims who are accused of defaming religious texts or figures.
In an interview given to Pakistan’s Dawn television on November 29, 2010 Governor Taseer spoke out against the religious extremists and fundamentalists who were against the laws lamenting the misuse of Islam to pursue vendettas against minorities. Governor Taseer was also the owner of a liberal newspaper The Daily Times that often published articles against the law.
Amnesty International has repeatedly asked the Government of Pakistan to abolish the Blasphemy Law and provide protection to Pakistan’s Shias, Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus Zoroastrians and other minorities. Section 295 ( c ) of the Pakistan Penal Code which mandates the death penalty for crimes of Blasphemy must urgently be repealed to prevent the further bullying of innocent Pakistani citizens at the hands of religious extremists.
After the tragic assassination of Governor Salman Taseer, a courageous and stalwart human rights defender, action against this draconian and ill drafted law has become an imperative that must be supported by all those committed to the cause of human rights. The legacy of a man who refused to be silenced by the forces of religious extremism can only be respected if these laws are repealed.