Andrew Buncombe: Those who dare to speak out become a shooting target

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Rarely have Pakistan's religious minorities and liberals felt more beleaguered. Less than two months after the killing of Salmaan Taseer, a government minister has been assassinated in another hail of bullets. On this occasion, the killers were Taliban militants rather than a bodyguard.

There are many questions after the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of the cabinet.

Among them is why a man who received death threats because of his outspoken wish to reform the country's blasphemy laws and who predicted his own killing, was travelling without his security detail.

But one thing has become very clear: anyone in Pakistan who dares speak out against these laws instantly becomes a shooting target.

One's elevated position, one's seniority in the establishment, will not be enough to protect you. Indeed, it will only make you more exposed.

For Pakistan's minorities, the feeling is nothing less than despair. "We are all feeling very shocked, very shaken," said Father Abid Saeed, a senior Catholic priest from Lahore.

For the country's liberals, those who covet the Pakistan envisaged by its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who famously said there should be "no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another", there are few heroes left. Mr Bhatti and Mr Taseer, along with Sherry Rehman, were among the few within the political establishment who dared to speak out. Mr Bhatti and Mr Taseer are now dead while Ms Rehman is believed to be in hiding. Their party, the ruling Pakistan People's Party, has made clear it no longer has any plans to reform the blasphemy laws.

Liberal Pakistanis used to relish the fact the country's religious parties always did poorly at the polls. Now they are having to confront the reality that it no longer matters: if the country's purported progressive party has been chased away from such important issues, it undermines the value of their election success. Yesterday morning, Raza Rumi, a journalist from Lahore, posted a blog which appeared to sum up the situation.

He said: "Sometimes it feels we are living in the Stone Age, where no dissent and no call for a tolerant society is possible."

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