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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.