Pakistan's Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti had predicted a possible violent death for himself in the wake of the assassination of party colleague and Punjab Governor Salman Taseer on January 4. And, the civil society in Pakistan has lived in fear of such an eventuality since. Still, when news of the minister being gunned down near his house in Islamabad came, it left everyone shell-shocked and fearful as the already negligible space for discourse shrunk further.
As condemnation poured in from civil society and the diplomatic community besides the political class, the question uppermost in everyone’s minds was how to inject reason into the discourse that has been taken over by the 'religious' right wing.
In a particularly blunt statement, British High Commissioner Adam Thomson said: "It poses questions about what kind of society Pakistan wants to become." Describing the assassination as a "callous, cowardly attack’’, he added that the U. K. would continue to work side by side with Pakistan to help secure a brighter, more stable future for this country – "a future in which extremists are not allowed to threaten or intimidate Pakistan’s democratic process and debate".
Condemning the assassination, U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter said his country would stand with the people and government of Pakistan in their fight against the forces of intolerance and violent extremism that is a threat to all.
Expressing outrage, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said the assassination was the work of militant hardliners who are out to eliminate anyone who raises his voice against persecution of the vulnerable people. Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for an end to the political cowardice and institutional myopia that encourages such continued appeasement of extremists despite its bloody consequences.
Stating that Bhatti’s ruthless and cold-blooded murder was a grave setback for the struggle for tolerance, pluralism and respect for human rights in Pakistan, HRW noted: "In articulating the position that the blasphemy law, as currently framed, engenders abuse and required review, Bhatti was only doing his job and reiterating the stated position of the ruling Pakistan Peoples’ Party until it reneged on the same on December 30, 2010. Bhatti’s murder is the bitter fruit of appeasement of extremist and militant groups both prior to and after the killing of Taseer."
Demanding action against the assassins, Amnesty International noted that continued lack of accountability for perpetrators of abuse has severely eroded the rule of law in Pakistan. "Such violations thrive in the atmosphere of impunity and irresponsibility fostered by the government's failure to uphold its human rights obligations.”
Keywords: Bhatti assassination