Assassinated Pakistan Official Supported Religious Tolerance

PHOTO Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistans federal minorities minister, a Christian, was gunned down in the capital city IslamabaPlayABC News
WATCH Bhatti: 'I'm Ready to Die for Our Cause'

For the second time in two months gunmen assassinated a Pakistani politician who wanted to change the country's controversial blasphemy laws, a historic and fundamental assault on the kind of Pakistan the politicians died trying to create: a country of moderation and religious tolerance.

Shahbaz Bhatti, the minority affairs minister and the only Christian member of the cabinet, was driving from his mother's house in Islamabad when gunmen pumped more than 20 bullets through the door and windshield of his car, according to eyewitnesses and the police. The gunmen then calmly dropped dozens of flyers at the scene that threatened the same fate to anyone who criticizes laws that are supported by Pakistan's religious political parties but widely condemned by secular Pakistanis as tools to persecute religious minorities.

"This is a lesson to the world of infidel crusaders and Jews, and their allies in the Muslim world," the pamphlet said, signed by the previously unknown group Movement of Taliban al Qaeda in Punjab. "Either you or us will live in this world."

Bhatti's assassination -- and that of Punjab governor Salman Taseer in early January -- are deep blows to this fragile country, and threaten to silence millions of moderates who oppose the radicalism that helps fuel violence and terrorism.

"This is a concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive and humanist voice in Pakistan," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a member of parliament and a spokeswoman for President Asif Ali Zardari.

President Obama condemned Bhatti's assassination today "in the strongest possible terms" and offered condolences to his family, loved ones and coworkers.

"He was clear-eyed about the risks of speaking out," said President Obama, "and despite innumerable death threats, he insisted he had a duty to his fellow Pakistanis to defend equal rights and tolerance from those who preach division, hate and violence."

Bhatti had criticized Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which say that anyone defaming the name of the prophet Muhammad should be put to death. While no one has actually been executed for blasphemy, human rights advocates say the laws are vague and often used to settle personal scores and hunt religious minorities.

But the country's religious parties have strongly criticized and threatened anyone who argues the laws should be amended. And when the elite police officer who was supposed to guard Taseer killed him instead, he was widely praised by lawyers, religious students, and even middle-class Pakistanis posting on Facebook.

'I Believe In Jesus Christ'

Because of the widespread threats, after Taseer's death the Pakistan People's Party-led government caved in to pressure and promised not to amend or even debate the blasphemy laws. Bhatti was one of the few politicians still willing to discuss them.

He knew the risks. Two months ago, according to an aide to Bhatti, he recorded a video statement he wanted released only if he were assassinated. He was clearly unwilling to hide and silence himself -- he drove from his mother's house today without any police protection or an armored car – but to watch the video today is to see a man who seemed resigned to his fate.

"I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us. I know that what is the meaning of cross, and I'm following of the cross. And I'm ready to die for our cause; I'm living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights," Bhatti says to the camera, soberly.

He continues: "So these threats and these warning cannot change my opinions and principles. I will prefer to die for my principles and for the justice of my community rather to compromise on these threats."

But human rights advocates today argued that Bhatti did not need to be resigned to his fate, and that the state should have done better to protect him. They argued that Pakistan needed to take a more obvious stand against the radical groups that continue to reach into some of the quietest parts of the country to wage their violent campaigns.

"Bhatti's murder is the bitter fruit of appeasement of extremist and militant groups both prior to and after the killing of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer," said Ali Dayan Hasan, the Human Rights Watch representative in Pakistan. "An urgent and meaningful policy shift on the appeasement of extremists that is supported by the military, the judiciary and the political class needs to replace the political cowardice and institutional myopia that encourages such continued appeasement despite its unrelenting bloody consequences."

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Bhatti was on his way to a cabinet meeting, according to his colleagues, when his car was stopped by a white Suzuki with two men inside, according to two eyewitnesses who spoke to ABC News at the scene of the shooting. The gunman emerged from the passenger seat of the car and began shooting into the back seat of Bhatti's black Toyota Corolla. Bhatti's driver then fled and the gunmen continued to shoot into the car, the eyewitnesses said. Doctors said Bhatti was hit by more than 20 bullets.

Doctor Found Shahbaz Bhatti's Body

The nature of his death and the threats contained in the pamphlet dropped at the scene are clearly designed to scare Pakistanis into not speaking out against radicalism.

Moderates and liberals in Pakistan who have criticized the blasphemy laws say they are threatened nearly everywhere they go – whether on Twitter, Facebook, or with text messages. Many say they ignored such threats before, but cannot be so sanguine since Taseer and now Bhatti have been killed.

A doctor who lives about 100 feet from the scene of the shooting echoed that sentiment today. He ran outside after the gunshots, he told ABC News, and saw Bhatti's bloodied body. He said no police arrived on the scene for at least 15 minutes.

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Asked whether Pakistanis were being forced into silence, he asked that his name not be used and said, "They must not be silenced, but they have no way [to speak]. Because if I will talk today, maybe tomorrow, someone will come and kill me."

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