LAHORE – Pakistan’s minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti will be buried at his ancestral village Khushpur, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) west of Lahore, on Friday at 1 p.m. (local time).
But as Pakistan’s first and only Christian cabinet member is about to be laid to rest, his family members and government officials are arguing over the amount of security he received.
Bhatti’s family said he was never given an extended security cover and had the same security from his first to the last day as minister, despite many requests to the government for more protection.
A report in the local media last month stated that Bhatti had met both President Asif Zardari and PM Gilani and asked them for enhanced safety measures that included increase in strength of guards, a bullet-proof vehicle and other essentials as he noticed suspected persons roaming around his residence and office. His requests, however, fell on deaf ears – he was not provided with a bullet-proof vehicle even though several former ministers are using these cars being no longer in the federal cabinet.
“He just had a police squad comprising 5 to 6 men, not only from the day he assumed the ministership first in 2008 but until three weeks back in the new smaller cabinet and all claims that commandos were deployed and increased security was given to him are nothing more than concealment of facts,” according to a close relative of the late minister.
The family’s claim rejects Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s contention on Thursday that Bhatti had been provided sufficient security and it was his own fault that he did not take them along with him on the day of his assassination.
Talking to journalists in Islamabad, Malik blamed Bhatti for the incident. “Why didn’t he take along his security?” questioned Malik, ignorant perhaps to the fact that the police have so far been unable to produce a written document signed by Bhatti which could support their contention that the minister had himself asked his security squad only to accompany him to his office.
A signed document is mandatory in case a high-profile person opts to avoid security of his own will. Some reports suggest that Bhatti had lost trust in police guards ever since Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed by his own bodyguard in January.
Although a 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 on Thursday called on other countries not to link the Christian minister’s assassination with blasphemy.
"We believe it would not be helpful to link the highly regrettable killing squarely in the context of defamation (of religion) and blasphemy," Pakistani delegate Asim Ahmad said in a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council, according to a Reuters report.
In the rights council, Pakistan speaks for the 57-nation Organization of Islamic States (OIC) which is campaigning hard with support from African states and others like Russia and Cuba for what critics dub "an international blasphemy law."
Ahmad said freedom of speech could not justify defamation and blasphemy. "It is important to prevent the deliberate campaign of defamation of Islam and its Prophet," he said.
Contrary to Ahmad’s claims, pamphlets found from the murder site claimed that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab, an affiliate of the al-Qaeda, had executed Bhatti to punish him for pursuing a review of the blasphemy laws to stop its misuse against the minorities. Bhatti was also receiving threats for some time, after the conviction of a Christian mother of two and stepmother to three others, Asia Bibi (also known as Asia Noreen) for blasphemy.
Bhatti had predicted his death. He had earlier voiced his fear that he would be “the highest target,” following the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who was gunned down in Islamabad just two months ago by one of his own police guards for calling the blasphemy laws “a black law” and rallying for Bibi’s release from jail where she’s waiting for the hearing of her appeal against the death sentence handed over to her by a trial court influenced by Muslim extremists.
Investigations into Taseer’s murder are being carried out at a snail’s pace while his self-confessed assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, continues to be showered with rose petals at his every hearing.
As investigation into Bhatti’s killing gathers pace, the police claimed on Thursday that they have arrested two suspects in connection with the killing and are very near to apprehending the actual assassins. Sources, however, say at least 18 people are being questioned about the incident and most of them are poor taxi drivers who have been rounded up because they were frequent visitors to the area.
Meanwhile, conflicting accounts of two witnesses in the first information report (FIR) have raised doubts that the police could have pressured them into giving testimony, as one of the witnesses claimed that he was not even present in Islamabad at the time of the incident.
It has been recorded in the FIR that the minister’s brother Sikandar Bhatti and his nephew Rehan Bhatti were following him in another car when he was attacked.
However, according to a credible source Rehan claims that both of them were in their ancestral village. “We rushed to Islamabad when the minister’s driver Gul Sher informed us about the incident,” he says.
The FIR also said Sikandar and Rehan were following Shahbaz in Member of the Provincial Assembly Tahir Naveed’s car, while Naveed said they were all at the office. The source said that when Naveed was told that according to the FIR he was following Bhatti’s car, he immediately changed his stance, saying, “Yes, we were following the minister in a separate car at the time of the incident.”
According to the FIR, Sikandar told police that he and Rehan reached his brother’s house in Sector I-8/3 around 10:30am on Wednesday. “MPA Tahir Naveed was already present there,” Sikandar stated.
According to Sikandar’s statement, Bhatti was going to attend a cabinet meeting. “He asked us to follow him in Naveed’s car and when we left the house at around 10:55am, his car was intercepted by a white Suzuki car... two men came out of the car holding AK-47 rifles, while a third had a pistol in his hand.”
“The person with the pistol pointed his gun at us, while the other two opened indiscriminate fire on Bhatti’s car,” Sikandar said in the FIR.
The conflicting statements of the witnesses coupled with a stark denial by Interior Minister Malik that he was responsible for increasing Bhatti’s security despite a recent high-priority report by the country’s premier intelligence agency ISI that the minister’s life was in extreme danger, are a clear indicator to how things will eventually end up.
The Pakistan People’s Party government is already in a tight spot for half-hearted efforts to trace the killers of its chairperson and twice prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. The Pakistani Christians can expect nothing exceptional in Bhatti’s case.
Meanwhile, the world can only mourn the death of another lonely Christian in a country where hardly anyone listens to the woes of his community and where the government has simply brushed under the carpet repeated incidents of violence against its minorities.