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Rahimullah Yusufzai: Assassination at a time of economic crisis, war and flooding

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. On Tuesday, January 4, Governor Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab in Pakistan, was assassinated, according to Associated Press. AP writes, “The governor of Pakistan’s wealthiest and most populous province was shot dead in the capital Tuesday by one of his own guards, who later told interrogators that he was angry about the politician’s stance against the country’s blasphemy law”. Now joining us from Peshawar, Pakistan, to analyze these events is Rahimullah Yusufzai. He’s a senior analyst with the Pakistani TV channel Geo TV. He’s the resident editor of The News International in Peshawar, an English newspaper from Pakistan. And he’s served as a correspondent for Time magazine, BBC World Service, and ABC News. Thank you for joining us, Rahim.


JAY: So first of all tell us what happened, and then what is the significance of these events.

YUSUFZAI: It happened in the afternoon in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Salmaan Taseer was visiting Islamabad from Lahore, in Punjab, where he’s based. And he had reportedly gone to a restaurant to eat without much security. And then one of his own guards, Mumtaz Qadri, he shot him dead. And Mumtaz Qadri has [inaudible] confessed that he has killed him because he insulted the Holy Prophet Muhammad. He says that the governor described this blasphemy law in Pakistan as a “black” law, and that’s why he says that he was proud to have killed him.

JAY: Rahim, tell us a little bit about the blasphemy law. If I understand it correctly, it’s a few decades old, enacted during ul-Haq’s regime. And in theory, at least, if you defile or defame Islam, you could be executed, though if I understand it correctly, nobody really has for quite a few years. But there’s quite a controversy now about whether to eliminate that law.

YUSUFZAI: This law is a legacy from the military rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, and every government actually has been saying–quietly, I must say–that it needs some amendment, but nobody has dared touch it. And even now I have my doubts that it will be reformed. Nobody has any problem with the law concerning that the Holy Prophet should not be insulted. But the way this law has been applied and the way it has been misused, that actually is a matter which has been discussed.

JAY: By “misuse”, you mean people taking vengeance against others, false accusations, and things like that.

YUSUFZAI: Rivals settling scores have been trying to track people under this law. Some Christian people also were arrested and put behind bars. And anybody accused of blasphemy, then that person actually could be killed, and that is how many people have been killed, because they were accused of blasphemy or they were convicted of blasphemy. And now the governor of Punjab province has paid the price–Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who has been arrested under the blasphemy law. He visited her in jail, and he said on television, sitting with her, that he’s going to appeal to the president, Mr. Zardari, to give her amnesty. And then he said this is a “black” law. So that actually created resentment, and it was being feared that there would be somebody, some fanatic, who was going to kill him.

JAY: Now, he’s someone who’s very close to President Zardari and he’s part of the same party as Zardari. How’s this going to affect the current political crisis, where the prime minister, Gillani, his government may be falling apart, the Pakistan Peoples Party may be losing its grip on Parliament? So how is all this going to play out?

YUSUFZAI: Salmaan Taseer was a point man, a troubleshooter for President Zardari. He was holding the fort in the Punjab province. And Punjab was going to play a big role in any political situation in Pakistan. It is 56 percent of the population, and it has the largest number of MPs, members of Parliament. So Salmaan Taseer was going to try and achieve a change, a political change in Punjab, because a rival political party, the PML (N), led by Nawaz Sharif, is actually in the majority in Punjab province. So the president has lost his most loyal supporter.

JAY: So is there speculation, at least, that this may be more than just one lone gunman who doesn’t like the governor’s position on the blasphemy law?

YUSUFZAI: Well, right now, since the killer has confessed his crime, we don’t know much about about any conspiracy. You know. But there was this atmosphere which was created. There had been protests against the government because the government lawmakers, a few of them, wanted to bring amendments.

JAY: There’s also been protests about the economic situation, which must be terrible. The flooding situation still has only been partially addressed, if I understand it correctly–hundreds of thousands of people still without homes or real livelihoods. There was a rise in the cost of petrol and some other commodities. So the underlying issue here is the breakdown of Pakistan’s economy. Is that correct?

YUSUFZAI: That’s true. Pakistan is facing so many problems, you know, at the same time. And economic problems actually are severe now. We have shortages of gas, shortages of electricity, and there have been food shortages. So this actually is affecting the popularity of the government. People are very unhappy with this government, with the president, with the prime minister. And same with unemployment and inflation. So all those issues, actually, have made the government very unpopular. And then we have this political instability now. The government has lost the majority. And then we have militancy. We have got an active low-level insurgency in Baluchistan. We have this fully blown-up insurgency in the tribal areas. It’s a very bad situation for Pakistan.

JAY: Now, I think people who follow Pakistan know that the military caste, the top generals, do very well in Pakistan in spite of all these problems. The Pakistani elite is one of the more wealthy elites in the area. And certainly in terms of disparity of income between rich and poor, the ratio in Pakistan is very severe. So the Pakistan military regime has been doing quite okay in spite of the crisis. But there’s another issue this assassination raises, which is a lot of people are suggesting that the real threat to secularism and democracy in Pakistan, number one, traditionally, the military, but number two, the extent to which Islamist extremism or radicalism is prevalent in the military, within the intelligence agencies. And people are saying this assassination is sort of an example of that. Is that a real issue?

YUSUFZAI: We have this issue, this problem of extremism and [inaudible] and it also affects the Armed Forces. We have a large armed forces. We have more than 600,000 soldiers. And they mostly belong to the poor classes, low middle classes, and they’re more affected by militancy and extremism. So if you have a policeman working as a bodyguard for the governor and he kills him–and you can understand that this problem has permeated the society, and even the soldiers and policemen are affected. Even, I think, one reason why there’s more extremism and militancy is the policies of the army regime in Pakistan. They have been, in a way, encouraging some of these militant groups fighting in Kashmir and in Afghanistan. And when the Pakistani policy changed under US pressure after 9/11 and after the American invasion of Afghanistan, then the militants turned against the Pakistan government and Pakistan army, because they were earlier the allies of the army, but now the army’s policy has changed and the army is now fighting these same militants here in the Pakistani tribal areas. So I think that now this–these policies have come to haunt the country and the army.

JAY: Thank you very much for joining us, Rahimullah.

YUSUFZAI: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Senior Analyst with the Pakistani TV channel, Geo TV, and the Resident Editor of The News International in Peshawar, an English newspaper from Pakistan. Rahimullah has served as a correspondent for Time Magazine, BBC World Service, BBC Pashto, BBC Urdu, Geo TV, and ABC News. Mr. Yusufzai has interviewed Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and a range of other militants across the tribal areas of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Rahimullah joins us from Peshawar, Pakistan.