US tried to shield Pakistani official
Minister faced death threats
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Obama administration, concerned for the safety of the Pakistani official who was assassinated Wednesday, tried in the weeks before his killing to secure an armored car and beef up protection for him, a US official said yesterday.
Last month the Cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, told the State Department during a visit to Washington that his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws had brought a stream of death threats, said the official, Leonard Leo, chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Bhatti, 41, the minister of minorities and the only Christian in the Cabinet, worried that his life would be in danger if he was reappointed in a government reshuffle. After considerable political jockeying, Bhatti was included in the smaller Cabinet that emerged in mid-February, and extremists warned they would kill him, Leo said by phone.
The effort by the State Department to provide an armored car became mired in bureaucratic detail and was hindered by strained relations between Pakistan and the United States caused by the arrest in January of a CIA contractor accused of killing two Pakistanis, Leo said.
Bhatti’s premonition of his death at the hand of extremists came true when he was shot in his car on the way to a Cabinet meeting. His killers claimed ties with the Taliban.
The assassination was the second in two months of a prominent Pakistani official who favored reforming blasphemy laws. In January, a government bodyguard shot the governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, an outspoken critic of the provisions.
Taseer, like Bhatti, contended the laws were used to persecute minorities in a society 95 percent Muslim.
While Western leaders raised concerns yesterday about Pakistan’s willingness to stand up to the extremists, the government of President Asif Ali Zardari struck a defensive tone.
In a meeting with the Cabinet yesterday, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said Bhatti’s killers were determined to defame Pakistan.
A widely read newspaper, Jang, carried a headline saying the murder was a “heinous conspiracy against Pakistan’’ and suggested that it was a result of US pressure on Pakistan to combat terrorism.
The interior minister, Rehman Malik, appeared to blame Bhatti’s lax attitude toward his own security for his death, an argument contradicted by Bhatti’s requests for more protection.
Malik, who called the assassination a conspiracy, said the minister had been supplied with a 15-member security team that included four Christians.
In an effort to put some distance between the killing and the Interior Ministry — the government office that oversees internal security — Malik said the responsibility for providing an armored car for Bhatti lay with the Cabinet division, part of the prime minister’s department.
Bhatti became a target of extremists after campaigning for repeal of the death penalty for Pakistanis convicted under the blasphemy law.
Bhatti was disheartened, associates said, when the governing Pakistan Peoples Party retreated under pressure from conservative religious forces and dropped all proposals for changing the laws.