An Assassination in Pakistan

The cold-blooded murder this week of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province, answers a few questions with stark clarity, just as it raises others.

Taseer’s killing provides the government and citizenry an unequivocal and unpleasant reminder that state appeasement of extremist groups does not work. The Punjab provincial administration run by Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif needs to accept that its historical and ongoing tolerance of violence by extremist groups is simply untenable. The ruling Pakistan People’s Party-led federal government must also take a hard look at its conduct in events culminating in Taseer’s murder.

When Asia Bibi on Nov. 8 became the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death for blasphemy, the verdict was widely denounced, including by key members of the government, such as Taseer. He courageously visited Ms. Bibi in prison in a show of solidarity. President Asif Ali Zardari ordered a ministerial review that concluded the verdict was legally unsound and recommended a presidential pardon. The government announced its intention to amend the blasphemy law. The former information minister, Sherry Rehman, proposed legislation to amend the law.

But in late November, the government caved in to extremist pressure. Zardari allowed Law Minister Babar Awan to announce that there would be no change to the blasphemy law under his watch. On Nov. 29, in a clear case of judicial overreach, the Lahore High Court issued an order barring the hesitating president from issuing a pardon. Finally, on Dec. 30, the government publicly announced that it had “no intention” to repeal or amend the blasphemy law.

In making such a dramatic reversal, the government publicly isolated Taseer, Zardari’s close friend, and Rehman, who had co-authored the Pakistan People’s Party’s election manifesto.

The president’s dithering over Asia Bibi was in sharp contrast to his resolve in May, when he used his constitutional authority within hours to pardon Interior Minister Rehman Malik, convicted for non-appearance in two corruption trials.

By allowing Ms. Bibi to become a pawn in a turf-war with the judiciary and the Islamists, the government compromised its credibility, marginalized reasonable and tolerant voices in the ruling party and made life even more precarious for persecuted minorities.

That in turn left Taseer and others opposed to discriminatory and censorious laws more vulnerable to attack. Islamists, acting under the umbrella of the Tehreek Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat (TTNS), have held rallies across the country in support of the blasphemy law and offered rewards to anyone who kills Asia Bibi.

They have made death threats to opponents of the blasphemy law — including Taseer and Rehman. Bewilderingly, the federal and provincial governments chose not to react on these threats. As a consequence, Taseer is dead.

The Zardari government, since the ousting of General Pervez Musharraf from power and its election to office in 2008, has been hostage to rights-unfriendly coalition partners. The media no longer dares to scrutinize judicial conduct for fear of “contempt” proceedings by a judiciary that has had the temerity to hold a hearing on whether parliament could amend the constitution. Journalists self-censor out of fear of military and intelligence agencies. But the media has remained free to propagate an Islamist, nationalist, and anti-Western line.

That the governor was felled by a member of his own security detail while other guards stood by underscores the extent to which extremists and sympathizers permeate the law enforcement agencies. It also underscores the Punjab provincial government’s inability or unwillingness to root out such elements from these agencies.

Finally, it indicates that unless there is a meaningful policy shift on the appeasement of extremists that is supported by the military, the judiciary and the political class, the edifice of the state is in danger of crumbling irretrievably.

In this tense, hate-filled atmosphere, the political courage to stand up for Asia Bibi — and Pakistan’s fragile democracy — is short supply.

Salman Taseer showed through his condemnation of the blasphemy law and his support for its victims that it is possible to hold public office and be principled and brave. He emerged, as Benazir Bhutto did before him, as a rare politician willing to risk his life in espousing an unambiguous position against discrimination and abuse. His assassination is a cause for sadness among those who struggle for a tolerant, democratic Pakistan. It is also a major political disaster for the ruling party, and a personal loss for President Zardari.

While expectations of a transitional democracy in a state rife with militancy must be tempered by reality, Pakistan needs more living heroes, not dead ones.

Ali Dayan Hasan, the senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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