ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Unidentified gunmen in Pakistan on Friday kidnapped the son of Salmaan Taseer, the liberal provincial governor assassinated by one of his bodyguards earlier this year in retaliation for Taseer's opposition to the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.
The abduction of Shahbaz Taseer in the eastern city of Lahore raised concerns that Islamic extremists were intent on targeting members of the Taseer family, some of whom have continued to speak out against intolerance in Pakistani society after the governor's slaying on Jan. 4.
After bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Qadri shot to death the elder Taseer outside an Islamabad restaurant, he told police he killed the Punjab provincial governor because of Taseer's stance against the country's blasphemy statute, which makes it a crime to insult the Muslim prophet Muhammad, the Quran, or Islam and can entail execution as punishment. Qadri, 26, is awaiting trial and Taseer elder son Shehryar Taseer is pursuing the case.
"Our family has been receiving threats from the Taliban and extremist groups," Shehryar told reporters, adding they could be behind the abduction.
Western leaders and analysts were particularly dismayed by how segments of Pakistani society reacted to Taseer's assassination. Many Pakistanis showered Qadri with praise and called him a hero, a reaction that showed how widely supported Islamist radicals and extremists are within Pakistan.
Two months after Taseer's murder, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and Pakistan's minorities affairs minister, was assassinated apparently also because of his opposition to the blasphemy law. Both Bhatti and Taseer had angered extremists by demanding a review of the controversial law in light of the case of Asia Bibi – the first woman to be sentenced to death under the blasphemy law in Pakistan.
Bibi, a Christian mother of two and stepmother to three others, was accused of blasphemy against Islam’s prophet. Although she has denied speaking ill of the Muslim prophet, she was beaten and has been imprisoned since June 2009. Bibi is still in prison and waiting for a court hearing date for her appeal.
Police say Shahbaz Taseer, 28, was en route to his office when four gunmen on motorcycles pulled up to his silver Mercedes and forced him out at gunpoint. They pushed him into a waiting sport utility vehicle and sped away, police said. Authorities say they have no suspects and that the Taseer family has yet to receive any ransom demands. The provincial government had assigned a security team to the younger Taseer, but no guards were with him when the abduction occurred, police said. Shahbaz Taseer is a director in several companies his father founded, including Pace Pakistan Ltd., First Capital Equities Ltd, Media Times Ltd. and First Capital Securities Corp. Ltd.
Rana Sanaullah, Punjab's law minister, suggested Islamic militants may have been behind Taseer's kidnapping. "This is a very distressing incident," Sanaullah told reporters in Lahore. "Involvement of terrorist organizations in abduction incidents is getting grave across the country."
Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, urged Pakistani authorities to move quickly to rescue Taseer. "This family has suffered too much already, and given the security threats directed toward them in the aftermath of Governor Taseer's death, this kidnapping underscores the failing writ of the state and its inability to provide security even to those known to be at high risk," Hasan said in a statement.
Taseer's abduction follows the Aug. 13 kidnapping of American development expert Warren Weinstein from his house in the eastern city of Lahore.
On Thursday, police raided a house in the central Pakistan town of Khushab where they believed Weinstein was being held, but the kidnappers had fled with the American before police arrived, Lahore authorities said.
Weinstein was kidnapped just two days before he was scheduled to move back to the United States after living in Pakistan for seven years. He is Pakistan country director for J.E. Austin Associates, a consultant for development projects in Pakistan and a host of other countries. Police have arrested three people they believe are linked to the gang that kidnapped Weinstein.