Pakistan Criticized for Lax Attempt to Find Killer of Christian Cabinet Minister

By Patrick Goodenough | March 7, 2012 | 4:38 AM EST

Human Rights Focus Pakistan stages a protest rally in Faisalabad marking the anniversary of the assassination of Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti. (Photo: HRFP)

( – As Pakistani Christians mark the anniversary of the assassination of their most outspoken advocate, police appear to be no closer to tracking down Shahbaz Bhatti’s killers than they were after he was gunned down outside his mother’s house in Islamabad a year ago.

The investigation has been plagued by distractions and inconsistencies. Suggestions that “property disputes” were behind the killing were seen as an attempt to absolve radical Islamists who are widely suspected as having murdered Bhatti – Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister – because of his active campaigning against the country’s notorious blasphemy laws.

Pamphlets left at the scene of the shooting claimed responsibility on behalf of the Punjab branch of Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) – a conglomeration of a dozen militant organizations known as the Pakistani Taliban – and linked the assassination to Bhatti’s opposition to the blasphemy laws.

Two months earlier, Punjab governor Salman Taseer, a moderate Muslim who also opposed the laws, was shot dead by a member of his bodyguard, who said he had acted because of the governor’s opposition to the laws.

The blasphemy sections of Pakistan’s penal code outlaw desecrating the Qur’an and insulting Mohammed, Islam’s prophet. The offenses are punishable by death or life imprisonment.

Bhatti and Taseer had both campaigned on behalf of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani farm laborer and mother sentenced to death for “blaspheming” Mohammed. Both men had angered militant groups who declared them apostates.

“In your fight against Allah, you have become so bold that you act in favor of and support those who insult the prophet,” read the Urdu-language pamphlet left at the Bhatti murder scene. It referred to the slain man as a “cursed Christian infidel” and warned others holding similar views that Islamic warriors would “pick you out one by one and send you to hell.”

The TTP subsequently also accepted responsibility for the shooting in phone calls to Pakistani news organizations.

Despite these factors, from the outset there were attempts to move the focus away from militant Muslims, with a leading Islamist party suggesting that the CIA killed Bhatti to divert attention from an unrelated controversy over the arrest of a U.S. official who had shot two Pakistanis.

Later, an informant tried to point investigators in the direction of a property dispute being the motive for Bhatti’s murder.

That line of inquiry led to the arrest in January of a Pakistani businessman in Dubai, but he was released last month after producing documentation proving he was not in Pakistan at the time of the killing. A second businessman appeared in a court in Rawalpindi, but was also released. No-one is currently in custody in connection with the case.

Some government officials denied TTP involvement, and in a climate of fear and appeasement surrounding the blasphemy laws – which remain in place – many Pakistani Christians, and supporters elsewhere, doubt justice will ever be done.

As Christians gathered in recent days to mark the anniversary of Bhatti’s death, fresh calls were made for his killers to be brought to trial.

At a commemoration event followed by a protest rally at the Press Club in Faisalabad, Naveed Walter, president of the non-governmental organization Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP), said he was despondent about the investigation.

“The government is reluctant and playing games in scrutinizing the suspected elements of Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder,” he said.

The event also highlighted ongoing discrimination faced by embattled Christians and other minorities, including what Walter called “fictitious accusations” under the blasphemy laws.

He called on the government to provide free legal assistance to those accused of blasphemy, and to ensure judges hearing such cases were given the protection needed to allow them to hear cases without fear. (A number of judges and lawyers involved in blasphemy cases have been targeted, including a High Court judge in Lahore who was shot to death in his chambers in 1997 after acquitting two people who had been convicted of blasphemy by a lower court.)

Other participants at the HRFP event called for systemic changes, including amendments to the constitution and the revision of school textbooks which they said incite hatred against non-Muslim minorities.

‘End this charade’

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent statutory body which in 2009 awarded Bhatti its first religious freedom medallion, marked the anniversary by urging Islamabad to “repudiate the culture of impunity that has plagued Pakistan.”

“Despite Bhatti’s being a cabinet member, the Pakistani government has done virtually little to investigate the crime and bring the perpetrators to justice,” USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo said in a statement.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chairman Leonard Leo presents an international religious freedom award to Pakistan’s Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti in Washington DC in Sept. 2009. Bhatti, the only Christian member of the federal cabinet, was assassinated in Islamabad on March 2, 2011 by gunmen who linked the killing to his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. (Photo: USCIRF)

“The United States and the international community must press Pakistan on this case, so that every Pakistani knows that people who commit violence will be held to account and that individuals can stand for religious freedom without risking their lives.”

Noting some of the troubling aspects of the investigation, Leo called officials’ statements about the TTP not being involved “preposterous.”

“The Pakistani Taliban explicitly took credit for assassinating Shahbaz who was killed for his religious freedom advocacy. Pakistan’s government must end this charade and bring the real killers to justice.”

Leo said failure to ensure justice reinforced the USCIRF’s recommendations for the U.S. to designate Pakistan a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom violations. The Obama administration last year overruled that recommendation, as did its predecessor in earlier years.

The head of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Mervyn Thomas, also called for justice.

“It is crucial that his murder investigation reaches a satisfactory conclusion, not only to do justice and honor the memory of Shahbaz himself, but also to make it clear that the rule of law still means something in Pakistan,” he said.

“At stake is the ability and willingness of the Pakistani state to stand up against those taking justice into their own hands, including those who target religious minorities with confidence that they will never be held to account.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani took part in a ceremony in Islamabad Tuesday organized by the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, an advocacy group Bhatti founded in 1985. Gilani highlighted what he said were government achievements on behalf of minorities, including affirmative action quotas.

“All religions teach great values like tolerance, accommodation, peaceful co-existence, equality and respect for the rights of all people without any discrimination,” the Pakistan Today newspaper quoted him as telling the event.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow