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Freedom House condemns assassination of outspoken politician

(Freedom House/IFEX) - March 2, 2011 - Freedom House strongly condemns the brutal killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's Federal Minister of Minorities Affairs, who actively campaigned to protect the rights of religious minorities.
Bhatti, a member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the only Christian minister in President Asif Ali Zardari's cabinet, was shot dead by unknown gunmen on Wednesday in Islamabad. Pamphlets by extremist Islamic groups found at the scene suggest the motive for the killing was Bhatti's vocal opposition to the country's harsh blasphemy laws.

Bhatti's assassination comes on the heels of the January murder of Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, who had also supported reforming the laws. Taseer was murdered by his security guard, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, who said he was motivated to commit the crime because of the Governor's criticism of the controversial law.

"This is the second senseless killing this year of a brave champion of religious freedom who fearlessly stood up to counter forces of intolerance and religious bigotry," said David J. Kramer, Executive Director of Freedom House. "We urge President Zardari to bring the assailants to justice and to unequivocally condemn all religiously motivated violence. To do otherwise, would fuel this pervasive culture of impunity and further weaken the country's internal security and stability."

Pakistan's blasphemy laws carry several draconian provisions, including the death sentence for anyone accused of insulting Islam. The laws are not compatible with International Human Rights Standards including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Pakistan is a signatory, and have routinely been used to settle personal vendettas and persecute minority faith practitioners.

"Today, those of us who had the great privilege of meeting Minister Bhatti are shocked and saddened by the violent silencing of a brave voice of tolerance and pluralism," said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, Freedom House Senior Program Manager for International Religious Freedom. "These heinous murders are further evidence that the government of Pakistan must seriously reform these intolerant laws that violate the fundamental right to free expression and free worship and it absolutely must do more to protect those individuals who advocate this view."

The blasphemy laws' corrosive impact on religious freedom and human rights are chronicled in Freedom House's "Policing Belief: The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights."

Pakistan is ranked Not Free in "Freedom in the World 2010", Freedom House's survey of political rights and civil liberties, and Not Free in "Freedom of the Press 2010".

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