Lahore shuts down as Pakistan mourns assassinated governor
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Pakistan will bury Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer on Wednesday, a day after the moderate politician was shot dead by one of his bodyguards, reportedly for his opposition to blasphemy laws.
AFP - Pakistan was in mourning and on high alert Wednesday ahead of the funeral of Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer, following the country's most high-profile assassination in three years.
The 66-year-old, one of the country's strongest moderate voices raised against radical Islam and the advancing menace of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, was shot dead by a member of his own security detail outside an Islamabad cafe.
Shrouded in a white sheet, his body was flown home overnight from the federal capital to the Punjab seat of government in Lahore for a state funeral ordered by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
The city shut down and authorities put a ring of steel around key venues to guard against possible unrest after dozens of supporters of the main ruling Pakistan People's Party took to the streets on Tuesday to protest the killing.
"The body will be brought to Governor's House at 11:30 am (0630 GMT) and the funeral prayer will be offered at 1:00 pm," Lahore commissioner Khusro Pervez told reporters.
"Security is on high alert in Lahore and in the entire Punjab. We have sufficient reserve force deployed as well," Pervez said.
Gilani, who is facing a fight for political survival, has appealed for calm, with memories fresh of widespread riots after the December 2007 assassination of former PPP Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Investigations into the killing are focused on whether the bearded police commando gunman acted alone or as part of a wider conspiracy.
"We will investigate whether it was an individual act or there is some organisation behind it," Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters.
He named the assassin as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a government-trained commando assigned to the governor on at least five or six previous occasions.
"He confessed that he killed the governor because he had called the blasphemy law a black law," Malik said.
Taseer was outspoken against the Taliban and Islamist militants hunkered down in the country's northwest, who have also made increasing inroads into Punjab in recent years. He also spoke out recently against blasphemy laws.
The United States, which is in a sometimes troubled security alliance with Pakistan in its fight against Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan, said that his killing was a "great loss".
"I had the opportunity to meet governor Taseer in Pakistan and I admired his work to promote tolerance and the education of Pakistan’s future generations. His death is a great loss," said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Rights activists say Pakistan's blasphemy legislation fosters extremism. The issue shot back to the headlines late last year after a Punjab court sentenced a Christian mother-of-five to death for insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
"Taseer showed himself to be a rare politician, willing to risk his life in espousing an unambiguous position against discrimination and abuse," said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at US-based Human Rights Watch.
Analysts said threats to Taseer's life and the assassination underscored how deeply religious extremism had penetrated society, just days after businesses closed across Pakistan to protest against any softening of the blasphemy law.
"Religious extremism has penetrated so deep into society that it has gone into the state system," said political and security analyst Hasan Askari, in reference to the elite commando named as Taseer's killer.
Fears are also rising for the safety of PPP lawmaker and former information minister Sherry Rehman, who has proposed a private member's bill in parliament seeking to soften the blasphemy law.
"Religious extremism was fanned during the strike on December 31 against the governor and Sherry Rehman. Now it will haunt them even more," said Askari.
Government will be paralysed for a three-day period of national mourning, compounding the massive problems facing the PPP-led administration since it lost its majority with the departure of coalition partner the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.
Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif has given the prime minister 72 hours after the mourning period to agree to a series of reforms.
Analysts say Gilani will be reluctant to alienate Sharif, worried that his Pakistan Muslim League-N party could call for a vote of no-confidence in the government and so force early elections.
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