In Pakistan, violence is crudely justified as defence of Islam. The government must defend human rights and the rule of law
Despite repeated climbdowns by the Pakistan government to appease extremists over the blasphemy laws, the minorities minister’s assassination proves there is no room for compromise. It is time for Pakistan authorities to bring perpetrators of violence to justice.
The federal government was quick to respond to the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti with much stronger criticism of extremism than that which followed Salmaan Taseer’s murder on January 4. President Asif Zardari condemned the “heinous act” and vowed that the government would continue to “stand firm” against extremists. But the Pakistan government has been on the back foot for the past few months: it has largely retreated from any talk of addressing the widely recognised problems with the blasphemy laws; it has failed to “stand firm” against violence from radical groups, and it has, by and large, failed to protect and promote the rule of law.
Sadly, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, the army, remains silent on this issue as it did following Taseer’s assassination, even though it has issued statements on other matters of national interest in the past. The country’s largest opposition political party, the Pakistan Muslim League, has also stayed quiet.
A Pakistan Taliban spokesperson who later claimed responsibility for the murder was not so shy, nor was a note apparently left by the killers alongside Bhatti’s body. Both stated that he was being killed for criticising Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
The most ominous aspect of the Bhatti murder is that he himself was so clearly aware of the risks, but still did not receive sufficient protection. Bhatti, the Catholic son of a former army soldier and schoolteacher, had continued to receive death threats this year.According to one report a month ago, Bhatti’s security detail was far smaller than that accorded to other federal cabinet ministers despite the threats that arguably made him the most targeted government politician after the president and prime minister.
“I met him only last week and he was terrified for his safety,” says Asma Jahangir, former chair of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and currently president of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association. “In fact, he told me to be more careful and not to travel without security.”
The media’s coverage of the murder has been relatively subdued. One channel with links to radical religious groups claimed Bhatti’s murder was an inside job aimed at deflecting attention away from the trial of American intelligence contractor Raymond Davis . Others have ignored the note left by Bhatti’s killers claiming to be acting for Al al-Qaeida in the Punjab and Fidayeen-e-Muhammad, a militant group linked to the Pakistan Taliban. Most of the coverage has focused on Bhatti’s minimal security.
The solution to this malaise is not greater security, although it is vital that people against whom violence is threatened are provided with adequate protection. Neither is burying our collective heads in the toxic sands of conspiracy. At its heart the Bhatti murder, like that of Taseer, is about the abdication of government responsibility in the face of mob and political violence crudely justified as defence of Islam.
Amnesty International has called on the Pakistan government to bring Bhatti’s killers to justice. Such crimes, and a flood of incitements to violence against those calling for honest reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, thrive in the atmosphere of impunity and irresponsibility fostered by the government’s failure to uphold its human rights obligations.
It is a sentiment shared across Pakistan’s civil society.
“The government must take up this task wholeheartedly,” Jahanghir adds, “but I fear it hasn’t got the strength to do that.”
That may be so, but despite the sobering situation there have been signals of an emerging realisation that perpetrators of violence must be held accountable. A group of parliamentarians has issued a resolution condemning the murder of Taseer and promoting the principles of equality, tolerance, pluralism and democracy in Pakistan. Although it did not expressly criticise the blasphemy laws, the resolution mentioned the vital point that authorities must put a stop to the violence justified in the name of religion, which erodes the rule of law and sets the stage for further abuses.
Based on the immediate reaction of Pakistan’s media, particularly its highly influential private television stations, Bhatti’s assassination did not make a major impression on the Pakistani public. That may change in the next few days. But for the Pakistan government, it sure must set off tremendous alarm bells. Now is the time for the government, with the public backing of the army, to take bold steps to defend human rights and the rule of law.
[This article first appeared in The Guardian on March 2, 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/mar/02/shahbaz-bahtti-pakistan-violence.]