Pakistan unlikely to bend on blasphemy: analysts

ISLAMABAD, March 3, 2011 (AFP) - The killing of a Pakistani minister opposed to an Islamic blasphemy law is unlikely to prompt reform in a country under international pressure but hemmed in by conservative Muslim opinion, analysts say.

Gunmen shot minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, in broad daylight after he came out of his mother's home in Islamabad on Wednesday.

Another vocal opponent of the blasphemy law, Punjab governor Salman Taseer, was in January shot dead by one of his police bodyguards, who is said to be feted by his jailers and celebrated as a hero on the streets of Islamabad.

The government backtracked on amending the law, which provides for the death penalty, on December 30 after a number of popular protests despite criticism from rights groups who say the law is often abused to settle personal scores.

"Bhatti's murder is the bitter fruit of appeasement of extremist and militant groups both prior to and after the killing of Punjab governor Salman Taseer on January 4," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

"An urgent and meaningful policy shift on the appeasement of extremists that is supported by the military, the judiciary and the political class needs to replace the political cowardice and institutional myopia that encourages such continued appeasement despite its unrelenting bloody consequences," the New York-based group said.

Islamabad, weakened by rampant corruption, an economic crisis and a wave of suicide bombings, has allowed imams and fundamentalist leaders to court public opinion with their calls for the slaying of supporters of an amendment to the law.

In advocating reform of the law, "Bhatti was only doing his job and reiterating the stated position of the ruling Pakistan Peoples' Party until it reneged on the same on December 30, 2010," Human Rights Watch said.

The international community has stepped up pressure on Islamabad for reform since the sentencing to death of Christian mother-of-five Aasia Bibi in November for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed and the assassination of Taseer, who publicly backed Bibi.

Pakistan, a key ally of Washington in its "war on terror", is on the verge of bankruptcy and can ill afford to offend its international donors, but finds itself risking igniting fury among a disaffected public which is quick to take to the streets to voice its dissatisfaction.

Political analyst Hasan Askari said the government was in a "no-win situation".

"It is weak in its performance, other political parties don't support it and society is polarised."

"There is an external pressure but internally the government does not have enough support to go against these extremist groups," he added.

Rasool Bakhsh Raess, a professor of political sciences at the University of Lahore, said the government would find it difficult to amend the law, having "taken a back foot on the issue".

"The domestic pressure is weak. Nothing big will happen as civil society members will keep on speaking and denouncing the murder but it will all subside later," he added.

Mehdi Hassan, chief of the Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, agreed that the killing was unlikely to bring about change.

"I don't see there will be any big change in the wake of Bhatti's killing. The government leaders will keep condemning the murder for a few days and then the people will forget."

"Today's assassination was continuation of Taseer's killing as Bhatti was also following Aasia Bibi's case."

Political analyst Imtiaz Gul said the government was a "hostage to political expedience" and refrained from taking a firm position on the blasphemy law.

"Until there is a strong message from the top -- and that includes both politicians and military -- it will be very difficult to take on extremist elements in the society," said Gul.

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