Governor who opposed blasphemy laws is shot dead

The Governor of Pakistan's largest province was shot dead by one of his own bodyguards yesterday, apparently in protest at his stand against controversial blasphemy laws.

In an incident that triggered a wave of anger and disbelief across the country, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab and a close ally of President Asif Ali Zardari, was killed at a popular market in Islamabad by one of his security detail. It is the highest profile assassination in Pakistan since the killing three years ago of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Five other people were injured as other security personnel confronted the gunman. An urgent investigation is now under way into whether the bodyguard was acting alone when he shot dead the man he was supposed to be protecting.

The assassin reportedly later told investigators he had acted because of Mr Taseer's opposition to legislation that campaigners say is often used to persecute minorities and settle personal disputes. The 64-year-old governor had been one of the few high-profile politicians in the country prepared to speak out against the laws and often made his liberal opinions known on Twitter.

He had most recently spoken out over a death sentence handed down by a Punjab court to a Christian woman found guilty of blasphemy, saying the woman, Asia Bibi, should be pardoned. His comments drew criticism and death threats from Muslim conservatives but Mr Taseer recently told The Independent: "It doesn't bother me. Who the hell are these illiterate maulvis to decide to whether I'm a Muslim or not?"

On 31 December, he had written on Twitter: "I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing."

Last night, the assassination of Mr Taseer, a media tycoon and businessman who was appointed governor in 2008, was condemned by both distraught colleagues and angry civil society groups. "He was the most courageous voice after Benazir Bhutto on the rights of women and religious minorities," Farahnaz Ispahani, a senior aide to Mr Zardari and a friend of Mr Taseer, told reporters. "God, we will miss him," she added.

Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Groups, which has campaigned to abolish the laws, said: "Taseer showed himself to be a rare politician, willing to risk his life in espousing an unambiguous position against discrimination and abuse. His assassination is a cause of sadness for human rights defenders."

Reports suggested the police commando who killed Mr Taseer as he arrived at the city's Khosar Market was a member of the so-called elite force, based in Rawalpindi. The Associated Press said the bearded guard, identified as Mumtaz Qadri, had afterwards been boasting about the assassination, saying he was proud to have killed "a blasphemer".

The Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, said an investigation was under way to identify whether the 26-year-old guard, who fired at Mr Taseer after he got out of his vehicle, was acting alone or was part of a broader plot. "We will see whether it was an individual act or someone had asked him [to do it]," he said.

The assassination of Mr Taseer came as the country's ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was already stumbling following the decision by a coalition partner, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), to join the opposition benches. The main opposition party, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), which controls the Punjab state government, said prior to Mr Taseer's death that it would give the government three days to accept a list of demands, among them the reversal of price increases, if it wanted to avoid a possible vote of no confidence.

Adding to the instability, the assassination of Mr Taseer also raises questions about the extent to which religious extremists have penetrated the security forces. There appears to be some disagreement over who was responsible for Mr Taseer's security in the capital. Mr Malik said the security detail had been provided by the state authorities in Punjab, which has seen a growth of religious extremists and militants in recent years.

A number of people have been sentenced to death under the blasphemy law, part of which was introduced during the 1980s by Gen Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. Most cases are thrown out by higher courts and no executions have been carried out, but human rights activists demand the law's abolition.

The PPP had initially said it supported moves to scrap, or at least reform, the law. However, under pressure from religious conservatives, it backed away from such a move.