ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – In another twist in the probe into the assassination of Pakistan’s first Christian minorities’ affairs minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, the joint investigation team formed by the government to trace his killers has claimed that family rivalry, and not the Taliban, had killed Shahbaz Bhatti, according to a media report.
Shahbaz Bhatti’s daylight murder in the federal capital Islamabad on March 2 earlier this year, is now being attributed to a property dispute between relatives. According to a report appearing in Pakistan's vernacular press, police investigators have concluded it was not a religiously-motivated murder despite the fact that the Punjabi Taliban had claimed responsibility for the assassination the very same day.
Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan called several media organizations to claim responsibility for Bhatti’s murder because "he was advocating a review of the controversial blasphemy laws." The Pakistani government, meanwhile, had called on other countries not to link the Christian minister’s assassination with blasphemy. Pamphlets found from the murder site had also claimed that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab, an affiliate of the al-Qaida, had executed Bhatti to punish him for pursuing a review of the blasphemy laws to stop its misuse against the minorities.
Justice appears to be a long time coming for the former minister’s family since the murderers have fled the country.
“Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder is said to be linked to a ‘chronic rivalry’ with relatives who lived in Faisalabad five years ago,” revealed an investigator associated with the joint investigation team, according to the report. New clues have led the Islamabad police to a family, who left the country due to the rivalry with the Bhattis, the JIT claimed in its latest report.
The family was also residing in Bhatti’s native town Khushpur, which has produced famous priests and nuns, but some family members are now reportedly living in the United Arab Emirates. Two or three of them have converted to Islam and are living in Malaysia, one of the investigators reportedly claimed.
The murderers are currently in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur, according to an investigator. However, their names have not been identified yet. “We will approach Interpol for their arrest,” he said.
According to the report, an Interior Ministry official familiar with the matter said, “Interpol has not been contacted for assistance because we have no clue about the exact location of the accused.”
“We cannot put our case before Interpol without substantive proof,” he said. “Firstly, we wanted to close the investigation but then we learnt that there was a chronic ethnic and property dispute between the two families which led to Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder.”
Paul Bhatti, the slain minister’s brother and an adviser to the prime minister, said he has moved his family to Europe. But he did not disclose their exact location due to security concerns. When questioned if his brother’s murder was a case of family rivalry, Paul only said that Interior Minister Rehman Malik had told him he had contacted Interpol to arrest some accused from the UAE. However, there has been no further progress, he said quoting police officials. “I will request Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to constitute a judicial commission to investigate my brother’s murder.”
Paul Bhatti had earlier told the Catholic Fides news agency that investigations into the homicide of his brother “were finally on the right track." "It was committed by the Taliban and Islamist fanatics. Now, we are waiting for the capture of the perpetrators, who are in Dubai," he said.
He had said then that investigators have determined that al-Qaida's "Brigade 313," led by feared militant leader Ilyas Kashmiri, asked a Taliban commander based in Pakistan’s Punjab province named Asmatullah Mawaia to kill his brother. There were people who tried to suggest Shahbaz Bhatti was killed by those close to him, but, "the truth has emerged," Paul Bhatti said. "We were convinced that he had been killed for his work, for his defense of human rights (and) the rights of Christians. ... The investigation has proved us right."
Shahbaz Bhatti, who left a chilling video prophecy of his assassination, had vowed to fight to the death in defense of Pakistan's persecuted minorities. He became the second high-profile victim among opponents of the blasphemy law. Two months before he was killed, Punjab province governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by one of his own police bodyguards, who cited the politician's opposition to the blasphemy law as justification for the killing.
Both Bhatti and Taseer had angered extremists by demanding a review of the controversial law in light of the case of Asia Bibi – the first woman to be sentenced to death under the blasphemy law in Pakistan. Bibi, a Christian mother of two and stepmother to three others, was accused of blasphemy against Islam’s prophet. Although she has denied speaking ill of the Muslim prophet, she was beaten and has been imprisoned since June 2009. Bibi is still in prison and waiting for a court hearing date for her appeal.
State Minister for Interfaith Harmony Akram Masih Gill said he would take up the issue with President Zardari and the prime minister on August 11, the day they are to inaugurate Bhatti’s memorial trust. “Paul Bhatti will also speak to both dignitaries to convey the minorities’ resentment which is increasing with every passing day,” Gill said.
The United States Commission for International Religious Freedom had some days ago demanded U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to declare Pakistan a “country of particular concern” while observing that Islamabad had failed to protect freedom of religion or belief.
"As human-rights concern with serious security implications, the need for greater respect for religious freedom and related rights should be an integral issue in the U.S. bilateral relationship with Pakistan," USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo and its commissioner Felice Gaer wrote in an op-ed in The Hill.
"We have identified this as a problem, and the US should be devising and demanding solutions. While it is complicated and awkward to do so in the case of an ally, the abuses and threats posed by a growing religious extremism threaten both countries."
USCIRF said designating Pakistan “a 'country of particular concern' will help the U.S. to turn its efforts to new solutions and practices to address Pakistan's endemic religious freedom problems."
The assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti underscored Pakistan's failure to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience or religion for even its most prominent citizens, the commission believed.