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Taliban: Pakistani minister killed over stance on blasphemy law

From Samson Desta, CNN
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Pakistani minister gunned down
  • U.S. envoy condemns the killing
  • The Taliban claims responsibility for the killing
  • Bhatti has been critical of Pakistan's blasphemy law
  • Other officials have also been targeted for opposing the law
  • Pakistan

Islamabad, Pakistan -- A Pakistani government minister who had said he was getting death threats because of his opposition to a controversial blasphemy law was shot to death Wednesday.

Shahbaz Bhatti was the only Christian member of the Cabinet in Pakistan, where 95 percent of people are Muslim. He served as the government's minister of minority affairs.

He was shot and killed in Islamabad on Wednesday morning, Pakistani police said. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

"(The) assassination of Bhatti is a message to all of those who are against Pakistan's blasphemy laws," said Ihsanullah Ihsan, a Taliban spokesman.

Bhatti had been critical of the law, saying at one point, "I am ready to sacrifice my life for the principled stand I have taken because the people of Pakistan are being victimized under the pretense of blasphemy law."

Other officials have also been targeted for opposing the blasphemy law, which makes it a crime punishable by death to insult Islam, the Quran or the Prophet Mohammed.

In January, the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his security guard because he spoke out against the law.

After Taseer's death, Bhatti pledged to continue pushing for amendments in the law.

"I will campaign for this ... these fanatics cannot stop me from moving any further steps against the misuse of (the) blasphemy law," he said at the time.

Bhatti said he was facing threats on his life, but was not afraid.

"I was told by the religious extremists that if you will make any amendments in this law, you will be killed," he said.

Bhatti was leaving his home Wednesday when gunmen sprayed his vehicle with bullets, said Jameel Hashmi, a senior Islamabad police official.

He was dead when he arrived at Shifa Hospital in Islamabad, said Azmat Ullah Qureshi, a hospital spokesman.

The minister is usually accompanied by security guards because of the death threats, but had instructed his security officers not to travel with him Wednesday, said Wajid Durrani, Islamabad's police chief.

Cameron Munter, the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, condemned the killing in a statement.

"His death is a loss for all who believe in the values for which he gave his last full measure of devotion," he said.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also condemned the killing.

"The assassination today of Shahbaz Bhatti in Pakistan -- a true hero for human rights and religious freedom for all -- illustrates how barbaric that country's system of blasphemy laws really is. Blasphemy laws don't keep the peace, but embolden extremists," said Leonard Leo, the commission's chair.