Gunmen have shot dead a Catholic Pakistani government minister, after he had vowed to defy death threats following the murder of another politician opposed to an Islamic blasphemy law.
Gunmen have shot dead Pakistan's minority affairs minister, Shahbaz Bhatti (pictured) in Islamabad Photo: AFP
In broad daylight, unknown assailants sprayed bullets on the car of minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti after he came out of a home in a residential area of Islamabad, police said.
"Three or four armed men riding in a white Suzuki car intercepted his official vehicle," city police chief Wajid Durrani told reporters.
"The attackers were clad in shawls and fired bursts on him, and he died," Durrani said. The minister's driver was wounded.
The police chief insisted that Bhatti had been provided with proper security, but said the minister was not accompanied by his security detail when the attack happened.
"The squad officer told me that the minister had directed him to wait for him at his office. We are investigating the matter from different angles," Durrani said.
Bhatti was dead on arrival at Islamabad's Shifa hospital, doctor Azmatullah Qureshi confirmed.
Bhatti, a member of Pakistan's tiny Christian community, had been a vocal opponent of the controversial blasphemy law along with the liberal late governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer.
Taseer, a member of the main ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), was shot dead on January 4 by one of his own police bodyguards outside an Islamabad coffee shop.
The murder -- the most high-profile political assassination in Pakistan since former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in December 2007 -- drew condemnation from the United States and Europe.
But Taseer's confessed killer has been feted as a hero by Islamist hardliners, who like the bodyguard rejoiced at the death of an "apostate".
After Taseer's assassination, Bhatti said he was also receiving death threats, telling AFP that he was "the highest target right now".
Pakistan's law against blaspheming Islam carries the death penalty. While no one has ever been sent to the gallows for the crime, activists say the law is used to exploit others from personal enmity or because of business disputes.
Religious groups held protests in several Pakistani cities after Taseer had vowed to amend the law.
Controversy over the legislation flared both within Pakistan and internationally after a Christian mother of five, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to hang last year for making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed.
Bibi was arrested in June 2009 after Muslim female labourers refused to drink from a bowl of water she was asked to fetch while out working in the fields.
Days later, the local women complained that she made derogatory remarks about Mohammed. Bibi was set upon by a mob, arrested by police and sentenced on November 8.
Politicians and conservative clerics have been at loggerheads over whether Bibi should be pardoned. But following Taseer's death, the government has made it clear it does not support reform of the blasphemy law.
Only around three percent of Pakistan's population of 167 million are estimated to be non-Muslim.
"During this Bibi case I constantly received death threats. Since the assassination of Salman Taseer... these messages are coming to me even publicly," Bhatti said after the governor was shot dead.
But he had insisted that he would work as usual.
"I'm not talking about special security arrangements. We need to stand against these forces of terrorism because they're terrorising the country," Bhatti told AFP at the time.
"I cannot trust on security.... I believe that protection can come only from heaven, so these bodyguards can't save you."