Playing cat and mouse with Russia’s nationalists

© RIA Novosti. Alexey Kudenko

Playing cat and mouse with Russia’s nationalists

by Anna Arutunyan at 13/01/2011 21:39

On New Year’s Eve, Vladimir Tor, the controversial leader of the ultranationalist Movement Against Illegal Immigration, walked up to the Marshal Zhukov memorial just off Red Square.
He had a scheduled meeting, he says, with Moscow’s chief police spokesman, Viktor Biryukov, about how to coordinate a nationalist rally that day on Red Square. Both he and Biryukov, he said, wanted to ensure that there would neither be any Koran-burning nor aggressive dancing by Caucasus natives – rumours of both were viciously circulating in the Internet in wake of violent racist unrest in December.
Instead Tor, whose real name is Vladlen Kralin, was arrested – swept up in the New Year’s raids on a motley array of oppositionists from Strategy 31’s Ilya Yashin to National Bolshevik Eduard Limonov. He spent the New Year in prison, where he spent 10 days.
Tor has been in contact with the police for years, he told The Moscow News, and was baffled by his arrest.
And just a day after being released, Tor was detained again on January 11, incarcerated for attending a small rally that was announced on various blogs by a shadowy group calling itself the December 11 Movement. This time, police preempted any mass gathering, detaining some 150 people arriving at Manezh Square before any protest rally could really begin.
Tor’s Movement Against Illegal Migration, or DPNI by its Russian acronym, and other nationalist groups have distanced themselves from the December 11 Movement.
“There is no movement, in the sense that it has no leadership, no ideology,” said Konstantin Krylov, head of the Russian Public Movement, a pro-nationalist group. Prior to his arrest, Tor told The Moscow News that DPNI does not officially support the December 11 movement either, but that some of its members were likely to show up.
Carrot-and-stick policy

Reining in the nationalists

Amid the ongoing threat of riots, the incidents with Tor highlights the government’s carrot-and-stick struggle to rein in – whether by arrests and coercion or through negotiation and infiltration – possibly one of the most threatening opposition movements in modern Russia.
But rather than promoting the Frankenstein’s Monster of nationalism, as some experts have alleged, last month’s response to violent unrest has appeared to show a government largely unprepared to face a grassroots movement that it has never really controlled in the first place.
It has certainly tried.
“Of course, young people, young activists are in the so-called risk group for infiltration by security organs who want to prevent nationalist movements from growing,” Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading sociologist who has studied both Russian security structures and youth movements, told The Moscow News.
But in the fragmented nationalist camp – where groups range from the relatively less hard-line DPNI to virulently anti-Semitic groups such as Narodnoye Opolcheniye and Slavyansky Soyuz – that has bred an atmosphere of paranoia where many suspect each other of being agent provocateurs on the Federal Security Service’s payroll.
“You really can’t tell who’s a provocateur and who’s an oppositionist anymore,” Viktor Militaryov, an expert with the Institute for National Strategy (and a nationalist sympathiser) told The Moscow News.
But there is also a far more legitimate form of contact, through regular interaction that seems to be welcome both by police and some nationalist leaders. That may be why police initially stood by and allowed football fans to chant nationalist slogans in December – aggressive and often armed with baseball bats, these are not the docile liberal protestors police are accustomed to dispersing.
Vladimir Tor, who has been organising Russian Marches every November 4, describes negotiation with police as a necessity.
“We have periodical meetings and consultations,” he said. “Although we are on different sides of the barricades, there should be some sort of cooperation and diplomacy. Because so many people are involved, it’s necessary to negotiate how to conduct such rallies lawfully.”
Kremlin contacts

Moscow police chief Kolokoltsev with protesters in December

© RIA Novosti. / Andrey Stenin

Moscow police chief Kolokoltsev with protesters in December

This time around, however, with rioting apparently out of the control of either DPNI or the more radical groups, the negotiation process is breaking down.
With up to 15,000 people gathering on Manezh Square on December 11 in a riot sparked by the shooting of Spartak fan Yegor Sviridov, the nationalists themselves didn’t know how to respond.
Judging by their behavior, police are even more confused, activists say.
“In 2006, they understood what was going on. But now they do not,” said Krylov, of the Russian Public Movement. He was talking about a similar – though far more manageable – wave of nationalist activity that started a year and a half before the last presidential elections.
“Now, they honestly believe that it’s all because some [political force] is trying to rock the boat. They still think it’s some evil provocation, except they don’t understand where it’s coming from. Activists questioned by law enforcement have been asked, ‘who can we pay to make them stop this?’”
One reason the nationalists are so hard to rein in is because they have become so fragmented, says Yegor Kholmogorov, a pro-Kremlin analyst.
“There is a whole new generation of ‘network’ nationalists, who function and organize over the Internet,” he told The Moscow News. “You cannot negotiate with them, and you cannot understand what is going on in their heads.”
Some experts point to evidence that the presidential administration tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to co-opt and work with moderate nationalists – both to assuage the threat and to further its own ideological agenda.
“Initially, DPNI positioned itself as something of a volunteer organization to help police with illegal immigration,” Kholmogorov said.
“[Kremlin deputy chief of staff] Vladislav Surkov was one of the godfathers of the 2005 Russian March. Everyone understood that this rally could not have taken place without the blessing of the presidential administration.”
But then members of DPNI not only started declaring outright anti-Semitic and aggressive nationalist slogans, Kholmogorov and Militaryov said, they also publicly insulted Surkov.
Since then, even if there were any overtures from the Kremlin to begin with, they were all cut off.
“There was a proposal to form a public council consisting of nationalist groups like DPNI and Slavyansky Soyuz that would work with Moscow police,” former DPNI leader Alexander Belov told The Moscow News. “But it was prevented, I believe on orders from the presidential administration.”
Instead, Belov said, police were told to cooperate with the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth group – which has also sometimes demonstrated nationalist leanings.
Crackdown
Among the government’s more hard-line responses to the December unrest was the sudden re-arrest of military intelligence officer Vladimir Kvachkov, who was recently acquitted by a jury trial of trying to assassinate 1990s privatisation chief Anatoly Chubais in 2005.
Kvachkov, who heads the ultranationalist Narodnoye Opolcheniye, is now being accused of trying to stage an armed coup.
But other nationalists – particularly in DPNI – are wary of the GRU colonel, who has been a vocal participant of Russian Marches ever since being released from prison over the Chubais case.
At worst, he could be a provocateur, they say – and at best an easy target.
Kholmogorov believes that while Kvachkov may be perfectly sincere, he could also be used as a way to trap other nationalists.
“It’s unlikely that he’s to blame for organising the unrest, but his arrest is part of an attempt to catch nationalists on the hook, to force everyone to start fighting for his release,” he said, adding that supporters would be easier to apprehend and punish.
Indeed, Kvachkov’s release was one of the demands made at the Jan. 11 rally – and served as a pretext to arrest participants. “It turned out to be a trap,” Kholmogorov said of the Jan. 11 protest.

18 inch high pressure gas pipeline blown up In Balochistan

SSGC’s 18 inch high pressure gas pipeline blown up, gas supply to Punjab and Karachi suspended

on 2011/1/21 0:00:00 (98 reads)
KARACHI: A serious incident of insurgency occurred at 6:00am on January 20, 2011 , near Hajano village in the Tangwani area of District Kashmore about 34 kilometers downstream from Sui, South of the Sui gas field, close to the Balochistan and Sindh border. As a result of the incident an 18 inch diameter SSGC gas pipeline was damaged. The incident was caused by an explosive device, causing a 6 feet deep trough and rupturing nearly 40 feet long pipeline in a tract of wet muddy land.

The pipeline was carrying 110 million cubic feet gas daily (mmcfd) from Sui gas field to SSGC’s pipeline system at Shikarpur, for its onward transmission to the entire Balochistan. Subsequent to incident, the effected section was isolated immediately. At the same time, an emergency response team rushed to the site from Shikarpur to inspect the situation. SSGC is managing the smooth and uninterrupted gas supply to Balochistan but a shortfall of about 30 mmcfd gas would be faced, as a result of the incident, resultantly the gas supply in Balochistan will be curtailed to all customers, except domestic for 2-3 days.

The recent sabotage activity took place just after 7 days, when on last Thursday i.e. January 13, 2011 another blast occurred on the same gas pipeline near Jafarabad. Four sabotage incidents had occurred at the same place i.e. ‘Tangwani’ area, since 2003.

Due to continuous attacked on gas pipelines the SSGC has suspended gas supply to several areas in Punjab, Dado and Karachi. Sources also reported that the security force has stopped the journalists from covering these incidents and some journalists were deprived of their cameras.

SSCG pipelines have also suspended the gas supply industries in Sahiwal, Shakhopoora, and Lahore regions for at least four days. According to local media, supply of gas to some industries in Punjab might be restored by Monday morning. However, industrial units of Faisal Abad, Multan and Bhawalpure will get gas on Thursday.

Meanwhile Sarbaaz Baloch of BRA has informed the news agencies that Baloch fighters have blown up a gas pipeline to Well number 65 near Mohammad Colony in Hajan area of Kandh kot, Sui to Karachi pipeline in Uch well number 11 and the pipeline to Compression Plant in Peer Koh area during different attacks.

The spokesperson of BRA urged the pro-liberation movements of Sindh to intensify the struggle for liberation to weaken the enemy and to make the freedom of Sindh and Balochistan possible. BRA spokesperson also claimed that they have killed personnel of FC (Frontier Corps) and vowed to carry out such attack in future.

Meanwhile the FC spokesman in Balochistan denied any attacks and killing of their soldier saying that no such incident took place and this was a baseless claim.

Duane Clarridge, Contra Destabilization Chief, Running Secret Ops In Afghanistan

Ex-spy runs his own mini-CIA

Private intelligence contractor goes after Taliban and the president of Afghanistan.

Paul Hosefros/THE NEW YORK TIMES

After a lengthy CIA career in which he co-founded the Counterterrorism Center, Duane Clarridge was pushed out in the wake of his indictment in 1991 on charges of lying to Congress. Now 78, Clarridge runs a donor-financed spy network that mixes foreign intelligence with his schemes for undermining the Karzai government.

By Mark Mazzetti

THE NEW YORK TIMES

WASHINGTON — Duane Clarridge parted company with the CIA more than two decades ago, but from poolside at his home near San Diego, he still runs a network of spies.

Over the past two years, he has fielded operatives in the mountains of Pakistan and the deserts of Afghanistan. Since the U.S. military cut off his funding in May, he has relied on private donors to pay his agents to keep gathering information on Taliban leaders and the secrets of Kabul’s ruling class.

Hatching schemes that are something of a cross between a Graham Greene novel and Mad Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy,” Clarridge has sought to discredit Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Kandahar power broker who has long been on the CIA payroll, and planned to set spies on his half brother, President Hamid Karzai, in hopes of trying to prove — perhaps with beard clippings — Clarridge’s suspicions that the Afghan president was a heroin addict, associates say.

His dispatches — an amalgam of fact, rumor, analysis and uncorroborated reports — have been sent to military officials who, until last spring at least, found some credible enough to be used in planning strikes against militants in Afghanistan. They are also fed to conservative commentators, including Oliver North, a compatriot from the Iran-Contra scandal and now a Fox News analyst, and Brad Thor, an author of thrillers and a frequent guest of Fox’s Glenn Beck.

It shows how the outsourcing of military and intelligence operations has spawned legally murky clandestine efforts that can be at cross-purposes with America’s foreign policy goals. Despite Clarridge’s keen interest in undermining Afghanistan’s ruling family, President Barack Obama’s administration appears resigned to working with Hamid Karzai and his half brother, who is widely suspected of having ties to drug traffickers.

The Pentagon official who arranged a contract for Clarridge in 2009 is under investigation over allegations of violating Defense Department rules in awarding that contract. Because of the continuing inquiry, most of the dozen current and former government officials, private contractors and associates of Clarridge’s who were interviewed for this article would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

Clarridge, 78, declined to be interviewed but issued a statement saying that his operation, called the Eclipse Group, “may possibly be an effective model for the future, providing information to officers and officials of the United States government who have the sole responsibility of acting on it or not.”

From CIA chief to free agent

Clarridge joined the CIA during its freewheeling early years. He eventually became head of the spy agency’s Latin America division in 1981 and helped found the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center five years later. He was indicted in 1991 on charges of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal but was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.

Now, more than two decades after Clarridge was forced to resign from the intelligence agency after the Iran-Contra scandal, he tries to run his group of spies as a CIA in miniature. Working from his house in a San Diego suburb, he uses e-mail to stay in contact with his agents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, writing up intelligence summaries based on their reports, according to associates.

In 2009, the security firm that Clarridge was affiliated with, the American International Security Corp., won a Pentagon contract ultimately worth about $6 million. U.S. officials said the contract was arranged by Michael Furlong, a senior Defense Department civilian with a military information warfare command at San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base.

To get around a military ban on hiring contractors as spies, a Pentagon report says that Furlong’s team called its activities atmospheric information rather than intelligence.

Furlong, now the subject of a criminal investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general, was accused in the Pentagon report of carrying out unauthorized intelligence-gathering and misleading senior military officers about it.

It is difficult to assess the merits of Clarridge’s secret intelligence dispatches; a review of some of the documents by The Times shows that some appear to be based on rumors from talk at village bazaars or rehashes of news reports.

Others, though, contain specific details about militant plans to attack U.S. troops and about Taliban leadership meetings in Pakistan. Clarridge gave the military an in-depth report about the Haqqani militant group in August 2009, a document that officials said helped the military track Haqqani fighters.

When the military wouldn’t listen to him, Clarridge found other ways to peddle his information. For instance, his private spies in April and May were reporting that Mullah Muhammad Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban, had been caught by Pakistani officials and put under house arrest. Both military and intelligence officials said the allegation couldn’t be corroborated, but Clarridge used back channels to pass it on to senior Obama administration officials. And associates said that Clarridge, determined to make the allegations public, arranged for it to get to Thor, a regular guest on Beck’s program on Fox News.

Taking aim in Afghanistan

Clarridge and his spy network also took sides in a battle over Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar Provincial Council. For years, the U.S. military has believed that Ahmed Wali Karzai plays a central role in Afghan corruption, though he denies any links to drug trafficking.

In early 2010, Clarridge helped produce a dossier for U.S. military commanders detailing allegations about the Afghan official’s drug connections, land grabs and even murders. The document speculates that Ahmed Wali Karzai’s ties to the CIA — which has paid him an undetermined amount of money since 2001 — might be the reason the agency “is the only member of the country team in Kabul not to advocate taking a more active stance against AWK.”

Ultimately, the military couldn’t amass enough proof to convince other U.S. officials of his reputed crimes and backed off efforts to remove him from power.

There have long been rumors that Hamid Karzai uses drugs, in part because of his often erratic behavior. U.S. officials have said publicly that there is no evidence to support the allegation.

Clarridge pushed a plan to prove that the president was a heroin addict and then confront him with the evidence to ensure that he became a more pliable ally. Clarridge proposed various ideas, according to several associates, such as trying to find a way to collect Hamid Karzai’s beard trimmings and test them. He dropped his ideas when the Obama administration signaled that it was committed to Karzai’s government.

But Clarridge, his associates say, continues to dream up operations against the Afghan leader and his inner circle.

When he was an official spy, Clarridge recalled in his 1997 memoir, he bristled at the CIA’s bureaucracy for thwarting his plans to do maximum harm to America’s enemies. “It’s not like I’m running my own private CIA,” he wrote, “and can do what I want.”

Female Suicide-Bomber Squad In Place On Afghan Border

Terrorists in the making: In the name of ‘martyrdom’

Taliban training an all-girl suicide bomber brigade.

PESHAWAR: “You will go to heaven before any of us, if you blow up yourself the way I tell you,” Meena Gul recounted the persuasive promise of her brother, a Taliban commander.

The twelve-year-old girl was apprehended by security personnel from the Munda area on the boundary of Dir district and Bajaur Agency in January.

Meena Gul managed to escape from the clutches of the Taliban in Charmang when militants’ hideouts were reduced to ashes in the bombardment. Her story, distressful in itself, was overshadowed by an ominous revelation of a women’s wing of the Taliban across the border to carry out suicide attacks.

“My sister-in-law, Zainab, was responsible for their training. She escorted eight  women from our village to Afghanistan,” Gul told The Express Tribune. Zainab battled Pakistani forces dressed as a man.

“My younger sister blew herself up in a suicide attack in Afghanistan. I, however, managed to escape. I was too scared,” Gul confessed.

A police officer burst into laughter on that cold winter morning at the DPO’s office in Lower Dir at the incredible disclosure. “Has the child lost her mind?” He exclaimed. “She cannot be taken seriously,” added another.

Woman suicide bomber kill 45 in Pak source

Gul’s words proved to be true when a burqa-clad suicide bomber detonated explosives, killing some 47 people and injuring over a hundred, 11 months later.

Meena Gul was a resident of Afghanistan. At the time, the police record showed her family had travelled across the country, residing in Karachi, Lahore and refugee camps in Peshawar.

The last suicide attack by a woman was in December 2007; she blew up herself at a checkpoint in the heart of Peshawar. It was also the first. The woman in her thirties, enveloped in a burqa, was the only casualty.

She was also identified by the authorities as an Afghan. But at the time they insisted she was more of a carrier than a bomber.

“The perpetrators of the Bajaur bombing were from Afghanistan,” said Corps Commander Peshawar, Asif Yasin Malik, on his visit to Bajaur Agency.

He condoled with the tribesmen, promising them that those involved in the massacre of innocent people will be brought to justice.

“People in the tribal belt are being influenced from across the border,” he stated.

The TTP has always acknowledged their women’s wing. They have been mentioned in the FM broadcasts of Maulvi Faqir Muhammad in Bajaur and the absconding chief of the TTP chapter in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah.

Enforcing greater gender equality in security checks implies stepping on a minefield of cultural constraints.

Searching women is considered taboo in Pakistan’s more conservative Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata.

If women are seated in a vehicle, it is typically not checked by security personnel.

The threat of terrorism is so pervasive that the centuries-old tradition of automatically excluding women from being suspect in crimes against humanity may have to be revised.

“Like all other cultural values distorted by the ongoing war, it is the sanctity of women that is now at stake,” concludes Sabir Shah, a resident of Peshawar.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 29th, 2010.

 

Pentagon Advisory Board Admits That American Intervention Causes Converts To Radical Islam

American intervention in the Muslim World elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists: Pentagon Advisory Board

The Defense Science Board (DSB), a US government committee produced a report in 2004. Its key findings are very relevant in today’s Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those who dismiss everything as antiAmericanism should read the full report.  The DSB is a United States Federal Government Advisory Committee established to provide independent advice to the Secretary of Defense. Statements, opinions, conclusions, and recommendations in this report do not necessarily represent the official position of the Department of Defense. In retrospect, the the report sometimes reads like an indictment of the US foreign policy. Here is an important quote:

 

American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies.

Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.

Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that “freedom is the future of the Middle East” is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World — but Muslims do not feel this way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved.

Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self determination.

Therefore, the dramatic narrative since 9/11 has essentially borne out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars. American actions and the flow of events have elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims. Fighting groups portray themselves as the true defenders of an Ummah (the entire Muslim community) invaded and under attack — to broad public support.

What was a marginal network is now an Ummah-wide movement of fighting groups. Not only has there been a proliferation of “terrorist” groups: the unifying context of a shared cause creates a sense of affiliation across the many cultural and sectarian boundaries that divide Islam.

Finally, Muslims see Americans as strangely narcissistic — namely, that the war is all about us. As the Muslims see it, everything about the war is — for Americans — really no more than an extension of American domestic politics and its great game.

This perception is of course necessarily heightened by election-year atmospherics, but nonetheless sustains their impression that when Americans talk to Muslims they are really just talking to themselves.

Thus the critical problem in American public diplomacy directed toward the Muslim World is not one of “dissemination of information,” or even one of crafting and delivering the “right” message. Rather, it is a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply, there is none.

Col. Imam Executed By His Captors?

[Col. Imam is a highly respected, almost legendary figure among the Afghan Mujahedeen.  Anyone who would lay a hand on him is certainly no friend of the Taliban, not even the Pakistani Taliban.  If this report is true, then it helps bolster claims of outside intervention in N. Waziristan, the elusive “foreign hand.”  The most insane terrorists operating in this territory are the gangs of killers and cut-throats on someone’s payroll.  Col. Sultan’s many friends in the Army and in ISI may decide to defend their homeland against these monsters and seek revenge for their comrade’s murder.]

http://www.longwarjournal.org/threat-matrix/images/Colonel-Imam.jpg

Pakistani militant group executes Mullah Omar’s trainer

Peshawar, Jan 23 (DPA) A Pakistani insurgent group has executed a former senior officer of the country’s top intelligence organisation who once trained Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, intelligence and rebel sources said Sunday.

Amir Sultan, a retired officer of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), also known by the code name Colonel Imam, was kidnapped with another intelligence officer and a British-Pakistani journalist in April last year.

An intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Sultan was assassinated near Mir Ali city in the restive North Waziristan tribal district Saturday.

His family had failed to meet deadline for paying a ransom of Rs.50 million ($590,000), the source said.

A local Taliban commander in Mir Ali confirmed the execution, calling it ‘a sorrowful incident’.

Neither the government nor Sultan’s family have confirmed the death.

Various groups of militants in North Waziristan were divided on the capture of Sultan, who gave guerrilla training to Afghan mujahideen during the resistance against Soviet occupation and supported the rise of Taliban in mid-1990s.

Senior Afghan Taliban commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has bases in North Waziristan, is believed to have made several attempts to convince a militant group from Pakistan’s central province of Punjab to release Sultan.

Sultan had travelled to North Waziristan with ISI officer Khalid Khwaja to help journalist Saeed Qureshi in making a documentary. Khwaja was reportedly executed by the Punjabi Taliban, a group of militants from Pakistan’s largest province.

Pakistan’s defiant prisoner of intolerance, vows to stay put

Pakistan’s defiant prisoner of intolerance, vows to stay put: London Observer

Pakistan’s defiant prisoner of intolerance, vows to stay put

‘These death threats won’t make me flee’, says Rehman, who supports reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

Declan Walsh in Karachi

The Observer, Sunday 23 January 2011

 

Sherry Rehman

Sherry Rehman, a liberal parliamentarian with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party who proposed a bill to reform Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, at her home home in Karachi. Photograph: Declan Walsh for the Observer

All Sherry Rehman wants is to go out – for a coffee, a stroll, lunch, anything. But that’s not possible. Death threats flood her email inbox and mobile phone; armed police are squatted at the gate of her Karachi mansion; government ministers advise her to flee.

“I get two types of advice about leaving,” says the steely politician. “One from concerned friends, the other from those who want me out so I’ll stop making trouble. But I’m going nowhere.” She pauses, then adds quietly: “At least for now.”

It’s been almost three weeks since Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned down outside an Islamabad cafe. As the country plunged into crisis, Rehman became a prisoner in her own home. Having championed the same issue that caused Taseer’s death – reform of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws – she is, by popular consensus, next on the extremists’ list.

Giant rallies against blasphemy reform have swelled the streets of Karachi, where clerics use her name. There are allegations that a cleric in a local mosque, barely five minutes’ drive away, has branded her an “infidel” deserving of death. In the Punjabi city of Multan last week opponents tried to file blasphemy charges against her – raising the absurd possibility of Rehman, a national politician, facing a possible death sentence. “My inbox is inundated. The good news is that a lot of it is no longer hate mail,” she says with a grim smile. “But a lot of it is.”

Pakistani politicians have a long tradition of self-imposed exile but 50-year-old Rehman – a former confidante of Benazir Bhutto, and known for her glamour, principled politics and sharp tongue – is surely the first to undergo self-imposed house arrest. Hers is a luxury cell near the Karachi shore, filled with fine furniture and expensive art, but a stifling one. Government officials insist on 48 hours’ notice before putting food outside. Plots are afoot, they warn.

She welcomes a stream of visitors – well-educated, English-speaking people from the slim elite. But Pakistan’s left is divided and outnumbered. Supporters squabble over whether they should call themselves “liberals”, and while candle-lit vigils in upmarket shopping areas may attract 200 well-heeled protesters, the religious parties can turn out 40,000 people, all shouting support for Mumtaz Qadri, the fanatical policeman who shot Taseer. “Pakistan is one of the first examples of a fascist, faith-based dystopia,” warns commentator Nadeem Farooq Paracha.

Is it really that bad? At Friday lunchtime worshippers streamed into the Aram Bagh mosque, a beautiful structure in central Karachi inscribed with poetry praising the prophet Muhammad. “He dispelled darkness with his beauty,” read one line. At the gate a banner hung by the Jamaat-e-Islami religious party offered less inspiring verse: “Death to those who conspire against the blasphemy laws.”

Qamar Ahmed, a 50-year-old jeweller, said he “saluted” Taseer’s killer, Qadri. “Nobody should insult the glory of the prophet, who taught us Muslims to pray,” he said.

A sense of siege is setting in among Pakistan’s elite. Hours later, at an upscale drinks party in the city, businessmen and their wives sipped wine and gossiped about second homes in Dubai. One woman admitted she wasn’t aware of Rehman’s plight because she had stopped reading the papers. “Too much bad news,” she said.

Yet Pakistan is not on the verge of becoming a totalitarian religious state. The fervour is being whipped up by the normally fractious religious parties, delighted at having found a uniting issue. Leading the protests is Jamaat-e-Islami, which made the mistake of boycotting the last election and now wants to trigger a fresh poll.

More significant is the lack of resistance from every other party. Rehman is polite when asked about the silence of her colleag ues in the ruling Pakistan Peoples party on the blasphemy issue. “They feel they want to address this issue at another time,” she says. The truth is, they have abandoned her.

The party played with fire over the blasphemy issue last November when President Asif Ali Zardari floated the idea of a pardon for Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death on dubious blasphemy charges. According to Rehman, he also agreed to reform the law. But then conservative elements in the party objected, a conservative judge blocked the pardon and, even before Taseer had been killed, the party had vowed not to touch a law that has become the virtual sacred writ of Pakistani politics.

The opposition has also been quiet. “The greater the failure of the ruling class, the louder the voice of the cleric,” says politician and journalist Ayaz Amir.

The mess is also the product of dangerous spy games by the powerful army, which propped up jihadi groups for decades to fight in Afghanistan and India. Some of those militants have now “gone rogue” and allied with al-Qaida; others, according to US assessments in the WikiLeaks files, are still quietly supported by the military. “Our establishment, especially the army, is in league with these people,” says Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, a moderate cleric. “And until they stop supporting them they will never be weakened.”

The furore has exposed the fallacy of western ideas about “moderate” Islam. Qadri is a member of the mainstream Barelvi sect, whose leaders previously condemned the Taliban. But after Taseer’s death, Barelvi clerics were the first to declare that anyone who even mourned with his grieving family was guilty of blasphemy.

Progressives demonstrate loudly in the English press and on Twitter but lack political support, having largely spurned corruption-ridden politics. Politicians say now is the time to come back. “They will be contemptuous of the politician, but they will not actually soil their hands with politics. But none of them has a constituency from which to stand,” says Amir.

And there are signs that extremists do back down when confronted. Qari Munir Shakir, the cleric accused of calling Rehman an “infidel”, denied his comments after Rehman supporters filed a police case against him. “It’s all been blown out of proportion,” he said. “All I did was ask her to take the law back. I can’t imagine calling her a non-Muslim or declare her Wajib ul Qatil [deserving of death].”

Rehman is unlikely to attend Pakistan’s parliament when it resumes this week. Her progressive credentials are strong, having previously introduced legislation that blunted anti-women laws and criminalised sexual harassment. But critics, including senior human rights officials, say she made a tactical mistake in prematurely introducing last November’s blasphemy bill without the requisite political support.

“There’s never a right time,” she retorts. “Blasphemy cases are continually popping up, more horror stories from the ground. How do you ignore them?” At any rate the bill is a dead letter: clerics are demanding its immediate withdrawal from parliament and the government is likely to comply.

Amid the gloom there is some hope, from unlikely quarters. On a popular talk show last Friday night Veena Malik, an actress who faced conservative censure for appearing on the Indian version of Big Brother, gave an unforgettable tongue-lashing to a cleric who had been criticising her. “You are attacking me because I am a soft target,” she railed into the camera, wagging her finger.

“But there’s a lot more you can fix in the name of Islam… What about those mullahs who rape the same boys that they teach in mosques?” As the mullah replied, she started to barrack him again.

Hope also springs inside the silent majority. “The blasphemy law should be changed,” declared Muhammad Usman after Friday prayers. Clutching his motorbike helmet, the 30-year-old pharmaceutical company representative said he was unafraid of speaking his mind. “It’s just the illiterate ones who are supporting Mumtaz Qadri. They don’t have any real religious knowledge,” he said.

Some analysts downplay the worst predictions, saying blasphemy is exceptionally sensitive in a country obsessed by religion. They are right. Pakistan will soon return to more concrete worries: Taliban insurgents, economic collapse, the rise of extremism. Yet there is no doubt the aftermath of Taseer’s death points to a country headed down a dangerous path.

“We know from history that appeasement doesn’t pay. It only emboldens them,” said Rehman.

She has no idea how long her self-imposed house arrest will last, but the precedents are ominous. In 1997 a judge who acquitted two Christians accused of blasphemy was gunned down – three years after the judgment.

“It makes me realise that life is pretty fragile,” she says. “But we don’t want to leave. I see no meaning to a life away from my country. It’s my identity, it’s everything.”