Governor Punjab Salman Taseer was laid to rest at the Cavalry Ground graveyard in Lahore on Wednesday,Thousands of Pakistanis braved high security to attend Taseer’s funeral, following the country’s most high-profile assassination in three years.
The 66-year-old provincial governor of Punjab, one of the country’s strongest voices against religious extremism, was shot dead by a member of his own security detail outside an Islamabad cafe on Tuesday.
His killing horrified moderate Pakistanis and supporters of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), but was welcomed by members of the powerful religious right, sending shock waves through an already fragile government.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and thousands of PPP faithful attended funeral prayers at Governor’s House at the Punjab seat of government in Lahore, which were delayed amid scenes of chaos as the crowd pushed each other.
His coffin, wrapped in the green and white national flag, was then flown the short distance by helicopter to the graveyard in the military cantonment in Lahore, where it was lowered into the ground by uniformed rescue workers.
The city shut down and authorities deployed security forces en masse to guard against possible unrest after dozens of PPP supporters took to the streets on Tuesday to protest against the killing.
“Security is on high alert in Lahore and in the entire Punjab,” Lahore commissioner Khusro Pervez told reporters.
Gilani, who is facing a fight for political survival, was forced to appeal for calm on Tuesday, with memories fresh of widespread riots after the December 2007 assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto.
Investigations are now focused on whether the police commando, who confessed to killing Taseer because of calls to reform blasphemy laws, acted alone or as part of a wider conspiracy.
According to the preliminary autopsy report, Taseer’s body had 29 bullet wounds front and back, puncturing his vital organs.
“We will investigate whether it was an individual act or there is some organisation behind it,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters.
He named the assassin as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a government-trained commando assigned to the governor on at least five or six previous occasions.
“We want to know who put his name on the duty list. We know he visited the police supervisor to get his name on the list,” Malik told reporters.
The supervisor and his deputy are among more than 10 people taken into custody for interrogation, officials said.
Taseer used Twitter and public appearances to speak out boldly against the blasphemy law, vowing not to back down despite pressure from his ruling PPP and threats to his life from fanatics.
He visited a Christian mother-of-five who was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death, declaring that he was confident she was innocent.
“I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing,” was one tweet.
Analysts said the assassination by a police commando underscored how deeply religious extremism had penetrated society, just days after businesses closed across Pakistan to protest against any softening of the blasphemy law.
“Religious extremism has penetrated so deep into society that it has gone into the state system,” said political and security analyst Hasan Askari.
Fears are also rising for the safety of PPP lawmaker and former information minister Sherry Rehman, who has proposed a private member’s bill in parliament seeking to soften the blasphemy law.
Violence flared on December 31 during a mass protest strike that shut businesses across Pakistan over any bid to end the death penalty for blasphemy.