Minister's murder 'a CIA plot aimed at US contractor's release'

Pakistan's minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated by the CIA to divert attention from the case of detained US contractor and murder suspect Raymond Davis, religious party politicians and scholars in Pakistan claimed on Thursday.

"This murder seems to be a conspiracy of CIA and its agents to deviate the attention from the issues like Raymond Davis trial," Hanif Jalandari, a senior official for the association of Pakistan's Islamic seminaries told Adnkronos Internationonal (AKI).

A Pakistani court has ruled Davis, a CIA contractor should stand trial for double murder after he in January shot dead two Pakistanis in Lahore he claims intended to rob him. Davis is also suspected of spying.

The death of a third Pakistani struck by a US diplomatic vehicle as it rushed to Davis' aid, has inflamed anti-American sentiment across Pakistan.

The case has caused a huge diplomatic row and is testing the often-fraught ties between the allies. US officials insist Davis has diplomatic immunity and should be released immediately. The Lahore High Court is due to rule on that issue later this month.

Hardline religious parties have called for Davis to be hanged.

Referring to the murder of Bhatti, a Christian and one of few politicians urging Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws to be amended, Jalandri said: "This incident has no logic."

"Had this occurred two months back the situation would have been different," said Jalandri, noting that the government had repeatedly stated it did not intend to reform the blasphemy laws.

The sentencing to death of a Christan woman for blasphemy last year in eastern Punjab state sparked an international outcry amid moves to reform the laws. But religious parties in Pakistan staged mass protests across the country to oppose the bill tabled by a member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party.

After the Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer, an outspoken critic of the laws, was shot dead by his bodyguard in January, the government said it had no plans to amend the blasphemy laws. Critics of the laws - which mandate the death penalty for insulting Islam - say they are abused to persecute religious minorities or settle grudges since convictions can be delivered with little evidence.

Bhatti's slaying was condemned by the head of Pakistan's main Islamic party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, who agreed with Jalandri that the CIA was behind the killing.

"We deplore the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti. This is the work of CIA to hush up the court trial of Raymond David in the media," Syed Munawar Hasan said in a statement.

Bhatti was killed when four gunmen riddled his car with bullets as he was travelling to a cabinet meeting in Islamabad. The gunmen reportedly left a leaflet near his body claiming his assassination by the PakistanTaliban (TTP) and Fadayan-e-Al-Qaeda, a group of jihadists that coordinates Al-Qaeda and the TTP.

TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ahsan reportedly called local TV channels to say the group had killed Bhatti.

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