ISLAMABAD — The governor of Pakistan’s powerful Punjab province was shot dead Tuesday by one of his guards in the Pakistani capital, apparently because he had spoken out against the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, officials said.
The killing of Salman Taseer was the most high-profile assassination of a political figure in Pakistan since the slaying of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, and it rattled a country already dealing with crises ranging from a potential collapse of the government to Islamist militancy.
The suspected killer was taken into custody, and there were conflicting reports as to whether he was wounded.
Taseer was a member of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and a close associate of President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower. The governor was vocal on a range of subjects, and frequently used Twitter to get across his views.
In recent days, as the People’s Party has faced the loss of its coalition partners, the 56-year-old Taseer has insisted that the government will survive. But it was his stance against the blasphemy laws that apparently led to his killing.
Interior Minister Rahman Malik told reporters that the suspect in the case had surrendered to police and told them he killed Taseer because “the governor described the blasphemy laws as a black law.”
“He was the most courageous voice after Benazir Bhutto on the rights of women and religious minorities,” said a crying Farahnaz Ispahani, an aide to Zardari and friend of Taseer. “God, we will miss him.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy law has come under greater scrutiny in recent days after a Christian woman was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Under pressure from Islamist parties, the People’s Party said recently it would not pursue changes to the law, which has long vexed human rights activists.
Police official Mohammad Iftikhar said Taseer was gunned down after he reached Khosar Market, a shopping center in Islamabad popular with Westerners and wealthy Pakistanis. Five other people were wounded as other security personnel responded to the attack.
Another police official, Hasan Iqbal, said a pair of witnesses told the police that as the governor was leaving his vehicle, a man from his security squad fired two shots at him. Taseer then fell, while other police officials fired on the attacker.
Taseer was believed to be meeting someone for a meal, Malik said. Other members of his security detail were being questioned, Malik said.
The security for Taseer was provided by the Punjab government.
“We will see whether it was an individual act or someone had asked him” to do it, Malik said of the attacker.
Bullet casings and blood covered much of the scene at the market, and police quickly cordoned off the area.