What the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti means for Pakistan

The PPP’s decision to back down on blasphemy laws gives a huge boost to the country’s extremists.

Shahbaz Bhatti has become the second prominent Pakistani politician this year to die for his opposition to the country's blasphemy laws.

Bhatti, the minister for minorities and the only Christian member of the cabinet, was shot dead outside his home in Islamabad by four gunmen proclaiming themselves to be the "Punjabi Taliban".

Like Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab who was shot on 4 January, Bhatti advocated reform of the controversial laws, which can carry the death sentence for anyone who criticises Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. Because they do not require much concrete evidence, they are frequently abused to persecute minorities and settle personal scores.

The political tension over the issue flared up in November when a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to death for allegedly blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad. Both men spoke out in her favour.

However, they were left politically isolated when the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) – of which both were members – distanced itself from those advocating reform.

Yousuf Raza Gilani told parliament at the beginning of February that his government would not touch the legislation. "We are all unanimous that nobody wants to change the law," he said.

The statement followed pressure from the religious right, which whipped up public sentiment with huge street rallies. However, giving such a major concession sets a dangerous precedent and indicates that the government is unwilling or unable to fight the extremists in the battle for public opinion.

It also suggests that the administration has learned little from the disastrous 2009 truce with the Taliban. Under that peace agreement, Islamabad agreed to let the Taliban implement Islamic law in parts of north-western Pakistan in the hope that it would decrease the violence in the region. Predictably, the Taliban became more audacious in its move inland, and the deal soon fell apart.

There are now fresh fears for Sherry Rehman, a former PPP information minister who has championed reform. Although the Taliban have declared her "fit to be killed", she has so far refused to leave the country. She has been in semi-hiding since January.

Poignantly, Bhatti was well aware of the danger to his life, and recorded a farewell statement four months ago in which he referred to threats from the Taliban and al-Qaeda. He vowed that he would continue to speak out for minorities:

I will die to defend their rights. These threats and these warnings cannot change my opinions and principles.

The government's decision to back down to religious clerics over this issue will be hugely fortifying to the country's extremists. It does not bode well for the future of Pakistan, or for its beleaguered minorities.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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