Punjab Governor's assassination deepens polarisation in Pakistan

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Islamabad, Jan 6(ANI): The emotional funeral of assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and the cheering of his killer in court highlights the intensifying struggle between secular and religious forces in Pakistan, that has grown nastier than ever before in the country's history.

As the 26-year-old assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, appeared before a magistrate in Islamabad to be charged with murder and terrorism, he was showered with rose petals and garlands by hundreds of supporters, The New York Times reported.

Moderate religious leaders refused to condemn the assassination, and some hard-line religious leaders appeared obliquely to condone the attack, it added.

On the other hand, thousands of mourners thronged to the funeral of Taseer, a prominent voice for secularism, who had recently become the focus of religious fury for speaking out against the nation's strict blasphemy laws.

However, many of the nation's top politicians, including Taseer's chief rival in Punjab and the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, did not attend the services. Neither did President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Taseer, out of concern for his own security.

Government ministers and party officials indicated that they were dropping the campaign to change the blasphemy laws that Taseer had championed.

No senior official would be drawn to comment on the religious extremist aspect of the killing at the funeral, and those who did comment, indicated a shift in the government position by suggesting that the killing was a political murder and a conspiracy, rather than a religiously motivated attack.

While Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi avoided all comment and merely expressed his condolences to the family when approached by journalists, Interior Minister Rehman Malik went as far as to say he would shoot any blasphemer himself.

"We have a very, very severe polarization in the country," journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the Taliban and radical Islamism, was quoted as saying.

"We have a small minority of extremists and small number of liberals speaking out, but the very large silent majority are people who are not extremist in any way but are not speaking out," he added.

In contrast to the muted response of Taseer's mourners, Qadri's supporters were boisterous on Wednesday.

The lawyers who campaigned so vociferously two years ago against the military dictator Pervez Musharraf in the name of the constitution and the rule of law were among those who feted the suspect when he arrived at court, the paper said, adding that some even volunteered to defend him free of charge.

Athar Minallah, a former cabinet minister and leading member of the 2007 lawyers' movement, said only a few extremists within the legal community would really support Taseer's assassination.

"Among the 100,000 lawyers in Pakistan, less than half a percent would go out and throw petals on this criminal, but the rest are hostages because the government is not providing any security, and why should I risk my life and that of my family," he said. (ANI)

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