Pakistani Politician, Critic Of Blasphemy Law, Slain The governor of Pakistan's most populous province was assassinated Tuesday by one of his bodyguards. Salman Taseer had been an outspoken critic of Pakistan's blasphemy law, which calls for the death sentence when anyone is convicted of insulting the Prophet Mohammad. Taseer said the law was applied arbitrarily, often to settle scores in personal disputes. The governor's stance apparently motivated the bodyguard to kill him. For more, host Michele Norris talks to NPR's Julie McCarthy.

Pakistani Politician, Critic Of Blasphemy Law, Slain

Pakistani Politician, Critic Of Blasphemy Law, Slain

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The governor of Pakistan's most populous province was assassinated Tuesday by one of his bodyguards. Salman Taseer had been an outspoken critic of Pakistan's blasphemy law, which calls for the death sentence when anyone is convicted of insulting the Prophet Mohammad. Taseer said the law was applied arbitrarily, often to settle scores in personal disputes. The governor's stance apparently motivated the bodyguard to kill him. For more, host Michele Norris talks to NPR's Julie McCarthy.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Pakistan today, the governor of the most populist province, Punjab, was shot to death apparently by one of his bodyguards. This is the highest profile assassination since the slaying of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto three years ago, and it has shaken an already fragile government.

Governor Salman Taseer was outspoken on issues ranging from women's rights to secularism, and he took a very public stance against Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

Our correspondent in Pakistan, NPR's Julie McCarthy, recently interviewed the governor. She happens to be in the U.S. right now, and she joins us for more on the death of Taseer.

Julie, good to talk to you.

JULIE McCARTHY: Thank you, Michele. Good to talk to you.

NORRIS: Now, people who've interrogated the governor's bodyguard say he actually bragged about the killing and that he was angry about the governor's effort to overturn the blasphemy laws. Tell us why Governor Taseer would want to do that?

McCARTHY: Well, he wants to do that because he was a secular voice in Pakistan. He was a very vocal one, which has through the years drawn the ire of the more fundamentalist forces in Pakistan. They are gaining strength in the country and have effectively shut down moderate voices like Taseer's.

He believed, as well as other rights groups did, that the country's blasphemy laws, which are among the toughest in the Muslim world, were outdated. The laws were introduced in the 1980s by the dictator Zia-ul-Haq who used them to consolidate his power, strengthen the religious radicals. Over a thousand people have been convicted under them.

But to date, no one has actually been executed under the laws, although plenty of people have received the death penalty under them.

NORRIS: Well, Julie, the blasphemy law and the - and one particular blasphemy case has been in the news recently in Pakistan. Can you tell us more about that case?

McCARTHY: Yeah. This is a real hot-button issue here right now in Pakistan. Asia Bibi is a Christian woman. She's a mother, she's a farm worker. She was convicted for having blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad, which carries the death sentence.

There have been in recent years, Michele, an increase in violence against this very tiny, small Christian community in Pakistan. And groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say the blasphemy laws are an easy tool to attack the Christians.

NORRIS: Did you have a chance to talk to Governor Taseer about this case?

McCARTHY: I did. And he was very vocal about it. He was called, in fact, by his mourners today, courageous for the stand he had taken on it. He was out ahead of this before anybody. He took it to the president and said this woman ought to be pardoned.

And we talked to him in late November, and I asked him why not wait for the courts to complete the appeal process before you seek a pardon in the case of Asia Bibi? And he said, you know, that's just going to condemn her even more.

And here's what he said.

Governor SALMAN TASEER (Punjab Province): Some people have said, oh, let the law take its course. Well, the law can take its course in five years, you know, and then what is going to happen to this poor woman? So therefore, I came in. And by doing that, I think it set a whole chain of events in motion.

And the sad part is that they actually threaten people and say that, you know, we'll kill this person and we'll kill that person and, you know, say you are not a Muslim and so-and-so is a Muslim. Now, you know, frankly, it's for God to decide whether I'm a Muslim or not.

McCARTHY: The Pakistan government is not inclined to push for a reform of that blasphemy law now, and Asia herself still languishes in jail.

NORRIS: Now, the governor, as I understand, also warned against appeasing Islamist militants in Pakistan.

McCARTHY: His home province of Punjab had been called a breeder reactor for extremism. And Taseer had been highly critical of those in the provincial government, who, in his estimation, were soft on convictions, on charges - on a whole tone against the militants.

Here's what he said about the treatment that ought to be meted out against those suspected and convicted of engaging in terrorism in Pakistan.

Gov. TASEER: That they get known if they're caught. They're - either they're in jail in a hole in the ground. When I was arrested by General Zia-ul-Haq, I was chained to the ground for three months - on the ground. These people should be treated in the same way. They're murderers. I was a political prisoner. I mean, what are you doing? Why are you mollycoddling them? Somewhere, the buck stops, you know?

NORRIS: Before Governor Taseer was gunned down by his bodyguard, did he acknowledge that his life was in danger?

McCARTHY: Oh, very much so. He was very aware that he had become a target, and very aware that those who spoke out, spoke out at risk of their lives.

NORRIS: Thank you, Julie.

McCARTHY: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Julie McCarthy.

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