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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Pakistan Interior Minister recovering after assassination attempt

Shooting may have been linked to blasphemy

Officers and rescue workers move Pakistan's Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal on a stretcher, after he was shot during a rally in Narowal on May 6, 2018. Directorate General Public Relations Punjab handout / Reuters
Officers and rescue workers move Pakistan's Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal on a stretcher, after he was shot during a rally in Narowal on May 6, 2018. Directorate General Public Relations Punjab handout / Reuters

Pakistan's Interior Minister was recovering in hospital on Monday after surviving a shooting possibly linked to blasphemy accusations. The suspected assassination attempt is seen as a bad omen ahead of forthcoming elections.

Ahsan Iqbal, 59, was shot in the arm as he prepared to leave a public meeting in his constituency in Punjab province late on Sunday.

A 21-year-old man later identified by police as Abid Hussain was wrestled to the ground by bystanders as he prepared to fire a second shot. Mr Hussain was taken into custody.

The shooter carried out the attack over a minor amendment to the oath that election candidates must swear, which was quickly reversed last year after it was linked to blasphemy, local deputy commissioner Ali Anan Qamar said.

The controversy ignited a three-week sit-in last November by a previously little-known Islamist group which paralysed the capital and ended when the government capitulated to the protesters' demands – including the ousting of the federal law minister – in a deal brokered by the military.

At the time many Pakistanis and analysts warned that a dangerous precedent had been set in which fringe groups could bend the state to their will by citing blasphemy, a highly inflammatory charge in the conservative Muslim country.

Mr Iqbal, known as a champion of Pakistan's much-persecuted religious minorities, was heavily involved in the negotiations at the time. He has previously condemned hate speech against groups such as the Ahmadis, an Islamic minority sect who were at the centre of last year's controversy.

After the shooting he was rushed first to a local hospital and then airlifted to Lahore, where video footage released by his ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) showed him being lowered from a helicopter on a stretcher, his eyes open as he responded to questions.

Doctors later said he was in stable condition.

The attack was swiftly condemned by the international community, including the US ambassador and the French embassy, as Pakistanis voiced fears it represented an attempt to "weaken democracy" ahead of the federal elections, widely expected to be held late this summer.

Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, tweeted that he "strongly condemned" the attack, calling it a "bad omen for upcoming general elections that is supposed to be free, fair and transparent".

The vote will only be Pakistan's second ever democratic transition, and with the PML-N in disarray since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court over graft allegations last summer, there has been growing speculation it could be delayed.

The court banned Mr Sharif from politics for life, while foreign minister Khawaja Asif was also ousted by the Islamabad High Court late last month for violating election laws.

Mr Sharif and his supporters have repeatedly denied the allegations, suggesting they are victims of a conspiracy driven by Pakistan's powerful military to reduce the sway of their party.

Despite the setbacks, the party has won a string of recent by-elections, proving it will likely remain a force in the vote.

Blasphemy can be punishable by death under controversial Pakistani legislation, with even unproven allegations sparking mob lynchings and murders.

Had the assassination attempt on Iqbal succeeded, it would not have been the first political killing linked to blasphemy. In 2011, then-Punjab governor Salman Taseer, a liberal who had called for reformation of the laws, was gunned down by his own bodyguard in broad daylight in Islamabad.

Mr Iqbal, touted as a potential prime minister when Mr Sharif was ousted last July, is a US-educated lawmaker from a political family long associated with the PML-N.

Considered the brains behind the party's development agenda, he previously headed up the planning ministry.