Salmaan Taseer: Last man standing

Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer was laid to rest at the Cavalry Ground graveyard in Lahore on Wednesday, January 5. Earlier, thousands of Pakistanis braved the
tense security situation and attended Taseer’s funeral after the country’s most high-profile assassination in three years.

His coffin, wrapped in the green and white national flag, was then flown the short distance by helicopter to the graveyard in the military cantonment in Lahore, where it was lowered into the ground by uniformed rescue workers. Lahore was shut down and authorities deployed security forces to guard against possible unrest after dozens of PPP supporters took to the streets to protest against the killing.

The 66 year old provincial governor had been Pakistan’s strongest voice against religious extremism and one of Pakistan’s foremost progressive leaders. His murder has horrified moderate Pakistanis and supporters of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The silencing of a temperate and liberal voice has been welcomed by members of the powerful religious right and does not bode well for a already shaky government.

On Tuesday, January 4, Salmaan Taseer was shot in daylight multiple times at close range as he was getting into his car in Islamabad at the Kohsar Market.Investigations are now focused on whether the police commando who confessed to killing Taseer because he opposed the reform of blasphemy law or acted alone, or as part of a wider conspiracy.

According to the preliminary autopsy report, Taseer’s body had 29 bullet wounds, puncturing his vital organs. The assassin Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, was a government-trained commando assigned to the governor on at least five or six previous occasions.

“I am a slave of the Prophet (pbuh), and the punishment for one who commits blasphemy is death,” he told a television crew from Dunya TV that arrived at the scene shortly after the killing, according to Nasim Zahra, the director of news at the channel.

“We want to know who put his name on the duty list. We know he visited the police supervisor to get his name on the list,” Interior Minister Reman Malik told reporters. The supervisor and his deputy are among more than ten people taken into custody for interrogation.

Taseer used Twitter and public appearances to speak out boldly against the blasphemy law, vowing not to back down despite pressure from his ruling PPP and threats to his life from fanatics. He had been vocal in defending Aasia Bibi, the Christian mother-of-five who was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death, declaring that he was confident she was innocent.

“I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing,” reads one of his tweets.

“It is a loss to progressive forces; he stood up for what he believed in,” said PPP lawmaker Sherry Rehman. There are now fears the safety of Sherry Rehman, who has proposed a private member’s bill in parliament seeking to soften the blasphemy law. Salmaan Taseer’s murder will be taken as a warning to any politician who speaks out against the religious parties and their agenda and may end attempts to amend the blasphemy laws in the near future.

The response of the right wing has been intriguing. While JUI-F and Jamaat e Islami have condemned the attacks, several religious groups have termed it as victory for those who want to protect the blasphemy law. After Taseer’s murder, a few zealots created Facebook page in support of Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri which was later taken off.

On January 4, the PML-N added to the federal government’s woes, giving the PPP a three-day deadline, extended for three more days in the wake of the assassination, to accept a list of demands to avert a no-confidence vote. These included a reversal of recent fuel price increases, cuts in spending of 30 percent and the enforcement of a series of court verdicts against governing party officials for corruption.

According to the New York Times (Jan 5) the Obama administration worries that even if Pakistan’s government survives the upheaval, the ongoing turmoil could kill any chance for political and economic reforms. The assassination, one official said, leaves not only the repeal of the blasphemy laws in doubt, but also possible reforms to increase tax collection. Under pressure from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clintonand other US officials, the Pakistani government submitted a new tax law in Parliament. But it may abandon the push as a way to lure back coalition partners.

In a statement, Secretary Clinton called Taseer’s death “a great loss”and said she “admired his work to promote tolerance.” Presidential spokeswoman, Farahnaz Ispahani, spoke tearfully about the Governor’s death and invoked the legacy of Pakistan’s secular founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, using the popular title for him, Great Leader: “Show me another party where the leaders are being murdered, and why is that? Because we are standing up for Quaid-i-Azam’s Pakistan, and against extremism and terrorism.”

Declan Walsh writing for The Guardian (4 Jan) said, “Taseer’s death deprives Pakistan of a colourful politician with unusual reserves of pluck. More significantly, it signals a worrying reduction in the public space for public figures, who cannot even count on their own police to protect them. The country’s liberals have not felt so isolated since the dark years of the Zia dictatorship in the1980s.”

The Friday Times, 7th January, 2011
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