Governor Taseer's actions in at least two recent incidents have been considered blasphemous by Muslim fundamentalists. The first occurence concerns Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who has been sentenced to hang after being convicted of defaming the Prophet Mohammed. A 45-year-old mother of five, Bibi denied committing blasphemy, telling investigators that she was being persecuted for her faith in a country where Christians face routine harassment and discrimination. Christian groups and human rights campaigners condemned the verdict and urged that the blasphemy laws be repealed. Pope Benedict XVI called for Bibi’s release, declaring that Christians in Pakistan were “often victims of violence and discrimination.” Ashiq Masih, Asia Bibi’s husband, said he had not had the heart to break the news to two of their children.
Governor Taseer, who was a member of the Pakistan Peoples party (the political party leading the federal government), visited the Sheikhupura central prison to meet with Bibi. According to the Express Tribune, the Governor stated afterward (on November 20) that he would take her clemency appeal to the President. He also told the media after the meeting that Bibi denied saying anything disrespectful about either the Prophet Muhammad or Islam, adding that villagers had chased her to her home, sexually assaulted her, and dragged her through the streets.
Taseer stressed that he did not want to interfere in the judicial proceeding, but would do as much as he could in his capacity to make sure she was not punished for a crime she had not committed. He said that though it was for the President to decide whether he would grant her appeal, he would personally ask the President to pardon her.
Bibi's supporters say she will now appeal the sentence handed down in a local court in the town of Sheikhupura, near Lahore, Pakistan.
In a second public case, after Governor Taseer labeled the blasphemy law "black law," the Chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) — the religious political party, which has a presence in the National Assembly and Senate of Pakistan — Maulana Fazlur Rehman announced that he intended to quit Pakistan’s ruling coalition in protest.
Governor Taseer was also outspoken against the Taliban and militants, regularly condemning the hardcore elements involved in committing suicide blasts and defaming Islam.
Pakistani media has reported that Sherry Rehman, the former Minister of Information and spokesman for the Pakistan People’s Party, while lending support to blasphemy convict Asia Bibi on Monday, called for urgent amendments to the country’s blasphemy laws.
A countrywide strike was held on Friday, December 31 to rally religious parties against the proposed amendments. In Karachi, protestors demonstrating on the Mauripur road blocked the intersection and suspended traffic. The federal government was under such pressure from public anger that the acting Federal Minister for Religious Affairs, Khursheed Shah, announced that the government has no intention of amending the blasphemy law.
Nevertheless, members of government are pushing ahead with revisions to the law. The criticalppp website stated that Sherry Rehman has submitted a private member bill in the National Assembly Secretariat that would, among other things, eliminate the death sentence for those convicted of committing blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed, replacing it with a 10-year prison term.
No Christian has spent more than six or seven years in prison on blasphemy charges; eventually they have been released by order of the High Court. Such a change in the law may potentially add time in prison for those falsely accused.
The federal government has announced three days of mourning for Governor Taseer, and the international community has condemned the assassination. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has met Pakistan's Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, to offer her personal condolences on the assassination of Salman Taseer.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the killing, calling it a major setback for the militancy-ridden country and describing Taseer as a genius politician. French comments echoed those of the UN. British Foreign Minister William Hague said that the killing of Salman Taseer is a loss to the leadership of the country. European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton also condemned the killing and demanded the government of Pakistan bring the criminals into a court of justice.
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Muhammad Zamir Assadi is a freelance reporter, based in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Photo of Salman Taseer and Asia Bibi: AP Images