Pakistani governor buried under tightened security

Troops of Pakistan's para military force stand guard outside a local hospital where Punjab's governor Salman Taseer's dead body was brought in Islamabad, Pakistan on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011.

LAHORE, Pakistan — Thousands gathered under tight security Wednesday to pay silent homage at the funeral of a provincial governor shot dead by a bodyguard who said he was enraged by the politician’s opposition to laws ordering death for insulting Islam.

Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, 66, was a senior member of the ruling party regarded as an outspoken moderate in a country increasingly beset by zealotry. His assassination on Tuesday added to the turmoil in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where the government is on the verge of collapse and Islamic militancy is on the rise

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and other senior ruling party officials joined up to 6,000 mourners at a ceremony at the governor’s official residence in the city of Lahore in eastern Pakistan, before Taseer was buried at a nearby cemetery.

Taseer was a close ally of U.S.-backed President Asif Ali Zardari and the highest-profile political figure to be assassinated since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was slain three years ago. His death was a reminder of the growing danger to those in Pakistan who dare to challenge Islamist extremists.

Khusro Pervez, the commissioner of Lahore, said city authorities had deployed additional police to keep the peace before and after Taseer’s funeral. Thousands of police guarded the governor’s residence and other key sites.

“Police are on maximum alert. Police are guarding all important installations in the city,” Pervez said.

The governor’s residence has been the scene of angry street protests in recent weeks against Taseer’s call to repeal blasphemy laws that order death for anyone convicted of insulting Islam and his support for a Christian woman sentenced to die for allegedly insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Taseer was shot in the back in the capital Islamabad as he left a restaurant to walk to his car.

An intelligence official who interrogated the suspect, Mumtaz Qadri, said the 26-year-old commando had been planning the assassination since learning four days ago that he would be deployed with security for the governor. Police were trying to determine how Qadri was assigned to Taseer’s security detail Tuesday and whether he had help.

The official said Qadri said he was proud to have killed a blasphemer. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

Qadri was arrested immediately after the shooting but it was not clear whether he had been officially charged with a crime.

Political allies questioned why Taseer hadn’t been better protected, given the weeks of angry protests outside the governor’s mansion over his opposition to the blasphemy laws.

In a nod to his campaign for legislative reform, the leading Islamabad newspaper Dawn reported in a front page headline: “Blasphemy law claims another life.”

Although courts typically overturn convictions and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.

Taseer’s admirers called the governor a courageous opponent of Pakistan’s shift in recent years away from South Asia’s Sufi-influenced moderation to the more fundamentalist approaches to Islam found in some areas of the Middle East.

His death also came as a blow to the ruling party, which is struggling to retain power after the defection of a key ally from its governing coalition that left it without a majority in parliament.

The leading opposition party on Tuesday gave the government a three-day deadline to accept a list of demands to avert a no-confidence vote that could result in the government’s collapse. The party spokesman said Wednesday the deadline had been extended by three days because of the assassination.

Another opposition party with sufficient lawmakers to confirm the ruling party’s control of the parliament on Wednesday ruled out joining the government coalition. Oakistan Muslim League-Q chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain told reporters the government “is a sinking boat.”