Adding Insult to Injury: The Abduction of Shahbaz Taseer

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Mohsin Raza / Reuters

Police and security officials keep guard near the cordoned-off vehicle of Shahbaz Taseer after he was kidnapped by unidentified men in Lahore, Pakistan, on Aug. 26, 2011

For the grieving family of Salmaan Taseer, the news could not be more stunning. Nearly nine months after the liberal governor of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, was brutally slain by his own bodyguard, his son Shahbaz Taseer has been abducted. Soon after Shahbaz Taseer left home, he was stopped by a group of armed gunmen. They surrounded his car, forced him out of it at gunpoint, dumped his iPad and mobile phones by the side of the road and fled unimpeded from the scene — in one of Lahore's well-heeled neighborhoods. Shahbaz Taseer was not traveling with his security guards at the time. A large-scale manhunt is under way, with the President, the Prime Minister and the chief minister of Punjab all pledging to recover Taseer soon.

The abduction has plunged many Pakistanis into a state of disbelief. With memories of the assassination still fresh in many minds, there are fears both for the family and for the future of a country where such incidents can take place. "Somehow, after Salmaan's assassination, the family had picked up the pieces," says a friend of the Taseers. "Now how does anyone cope after a horrific incident like this?" On Jan. 4, Governor Taseer — an outspoken advocate of religious tolerance — was gunned down with 27 bullets by one of his own elite bodyguards. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, confessed to his crime with chilling pride. "This is the punishment for a blasphemer," Qadri declared. He belonged not to a fundamentalist or militant group but to the Sufi-leaning Barelvi school of Islam.

The reaction to the assassination was no less shocking. Within moments of Taseer's murder, Qadri was hailed as a hero by a broad section of mainstream Pakistani society. In the months before he was killed, Taseer had been robustly campaigning against the country's vaguely worded blasphemy laws that have been consistently invoked against religious minorities. In particular, Taseer demanded the release of Aasia Noreen, a poor farmhand, who became the first Christian woman to face the death penalty under those laws. The governor's rare and forceful opposition was twisted and cast as an act of blasphemy itself. When Qadri appeared at court, he was garlanded and cheered by a group of lawyers.

In the ensuing months, not only has Qadri evaded conviction, but the Taseer family has also endured a series of further threats. Despite Qadri's confession, the court has convened only fitfully, dragging out the trial. "The government set a very bad precedent in the aftermath of Salmaan Taseer's death by not seeking to hold his murderer accountable," says Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director for Human Rights Watch. "There has been no movement on the case, and the failure to prosecute and convict the self-confessed murderer is a sign of both incompetence and an appeasement of extremists." It is this form of surrender, Hasan says, that emboldens further lawlessness in Pakistan.

Two months after Taseer's assassination, another senior government official was also shot dead in the capital. On March 2, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's Minorities Minister and the only Christian in the Cabinet, was gunned down outside his mother's home. Pamphlets dropped at the scene amid small pools of blood and shards of glass, denounced Bhatti's opposition to the blasphemy laws and warned that a similar fate could be meted out to other members of the government. The pamphlets were signed by "the organization of al-Qaeda and the Punjabi Taliban." The blasphemy controversy continues to cast a long shadow over Pakistan. Earlier this month, the man who led Taseer's funeral prayers fled the country, citing threats to his life. At the time, he was the only imam who could be found to lead the prayers after others backed out.

It is not clear why the captors chose to abduct Shahbaz Taseer or whether the abduction is in any way linked to extremist opposition to his father. This is the second time in the space of a month that a high-profile kidnapping has taken place in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city and its cultural capital. Three weeks ago, Warren Weinstein, a 70-year-old American development expert, was snatched by armed gunmen in a raid on his home. The American, who is the first private U.S. citizen to be kidnapped in Pakistan since the slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, has not been heard from since.

Abur Razzaq Cheema, a Lahore police officer, suggested to reporters at the scene that militants who have been threatening the Taseer family were suspected. "It seems they are behind it," Cheema said. But members of the family have warned against any premature speculation. They have not received any word from the abductors.

The fourth of the late governor's seven children, Shahbaz Taseer runs a financial-securities firm based in Lahore. His marriage in 2008 on the sweeping lawns of the governor's house drew a crush of Lahore's elite. Shahbaz Taseer is also a keen Manchester United soccer fan who would frequently tweet about the team's triumphs and travails. Shahbaz Taseer's youngest sister, Shehrbano, is a journalist and human-rights campaigner who has spent the months since her father's death defiantly speaking out against religious extremism and in support of Pakistan's beleaguered religious-minority communities.