LAHORE: Pakistan’s interior minister was recovering in hospital yesterday after being shot in a suspected assassination attempt possibly linked to blasphemy, with the attack seen as an ominous sign for security ahead of nationwide elections. Ahsan Iqbal, 59, was shot in the right arm as he prepared to leave a public meeting in his constituency in Punjab province late Sunday.
A man identified by police as Abid Hussain and said to be in his early 20s was wrestled to the ground by officers and bystanders as he was preparing to fire a second shot. He is due to appear in an anti-terrorism court yesterday. Police are still investigating, but local deputy commissioner Ali Anan Qamar said that the shooter said he was inspired by a controversy last year in which a small amendment to the oath election candidates must swear had to be hastily reversed after it was linked to blasphemy.
The row sparked a three-week sit-in last November by a previously little-known Islamist group, which paralyzed the capital. That demonstration ended when the government capitulated to the protesters’ demands-including the ousting of the federal law minister-in a deal brokered by the military. At the time many Pakistanis and analysts warned that a dangerous precedent had been set in which fringe groups could bend the state to their will by citing blasphemy, a highly inflammatory charge in the conservative Muslim country. Iqbal, a champion of Pakistan’s much-persecuted religious minorities who has condemned hate speech against them, pushed for a negotiated settlement to the controversy.
Police said they were investigating links between Hussain and the controversy, including the small Islamist party at the centre of it. After the shooting Iqbal was airlifted to Lahore. Doctors performed surgery on him until the early hours, Shafqat Waseem Chaudhry, one of the five-member medical team responsible for him said. Iqbal is “stable” but will remain in the intensive care unit for two days, he said. The attack was swiftly condemned by the international community as Pakistanis voiced fears it represented an attempt to weaken democracy ahead of the federal elections. The elections are set to be only the second ever democratic transition in the country, and are widely expected to be held late this summer.
Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, “strongly condemned” the attack, tweeting that it was a “bad omen for upcoming general elections that is supposed to be free, fair and transparent”. Security analyst Amir Rana told AFP the shooting of the minister nominally in charge of security in a country that has long grappled with militancy was a “serious” development.
“Pakistan claims that the country has returned to normalcy but such attacks continues to happen and these are downplayed,” he said. The shooting is the latest in a series of blows to hit the PML-N since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court over graft allegations last summer, which have fuelled speculation the election could be delayed.
The court banned Sharif from politics for life, while foreign minister Khawaja Asif was also ousted by the Islamabad High Court late last month for violating election laws.
Sharif, who termed Sunday’s shooting an “atrocity”, has repeatedly denied the allegations, suggesting he is victim of a conspiracy driven by Pakistan’s powerful military to reduce the sway of his party. Despite the setbacks, the party has won a string of recent by-elections, proving it will likely remain a force in the vote. Blasphemy can be punishable by death under controversial Pakistani legislation, with even unproven allegations sparking mob lynchings and murders. If the link to blasphemy is confirmed, and had the attempt succeeded, it would have been the second high-profile assassination of a political leader over blasphemy.
In 2011 then-Punjab governor Salman Taseer, a liberal who had called for reformation of the laws, was gunned down by his own bodyguard in broad daylight in Islamabad. Hardliners have built a shrine to his murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, on the outskirts of the capital. Iqbal, touted as a potential prime minister when Sharif was ousted last July, is a US-educated lawmaker from a political family long associated with the PML-N. Considered the brains behind the party’s development agenda, he previously headed up the planning ministry._ AFP