Pakistan minister gunned down in Islamabad (Third Lead)

Islamabad, March 2 – Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was shot dead Wednesday when his car pulled out of his home here, making it the second high-profile killing in less than two months over the controversial blasphemy law.

Bhatti, 43, a leader of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), was assassianted at about 11.15 a.m., Online news agency reported.

Like Punjab governor Salman Taseer who was gunned down by his own bodyguard Jan 4, the minister had been seeking a reform in the country’s blasphemy law.

Both had sought presidential pardon for Aasia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian farmhand sentenced to death on charges of denigrating the Prophet.

Minorites form just five percent of Pakistan’s 170 million people. Christians are the second largest minority after Hindus.

Bhatti was shot at from close range by men who had been waiting in a car for him. The incident took place when he was leaving his residence to attend a cabinet meeting without any security escort.

Some witnesses said the assailants pushed the driver and a woman companion out of the car and fired multiple shots at the minister, injuring him critically.

One man said the minister was breathing when passersby opened the door. The driver was urged to rush the bleeding minister to the Shifa Hospital. He succumbed to his injuries.

Another man added: ‘I saw the vehicle (carrying gunmen) in the middle of the road.’

According to hospital sources, the minister had received several bullets in his body.

Online reported that several pamphlets from a terror outfit were found at the scene, saying the minister was targeted due to his support for changes in the blasphemy law.

It also warned that anyone favouring changes in blasphemy law would meet the same fate.

Bhatti, also chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, was receiving death threats ever since he accompanied Taseer to a prison to advocate the innocence of Aasia Bibi.

Taseer was murdered by his official guard over the Aasia Bibi case. Bhatti restricted his movements after receiving death threats.

Aasia Bibi had begun facing problems in June 2009 in her village, Ittan Wali, in which hers was the only Christian household. A group of Muslim women and Aasia were picking berries when a row took place.

The women claimed she had insulted the Prophet. She was then pursued by a mob that attempted to kill her.

Aasia Bibi, a mother of five, was later sentenced to death. Under Pakistan’s penal code, anyone who ‘defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet’ can be punished by death or life imprisonment.

IANS