ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s new government paid tribute to slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and asked President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday to spare thousands of prisoners held on death row.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani made the plea for their sentences to be commuted to life imprisonment in a speech to the National Assembly to commemorate Bhutto’s 55th birthday.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has estimated that about 7,000 people in Pakistani jails are awaiting execution.
Gilani, a member of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), said the act of mercy would be a “big gift to the nation”.
On Friday, he renamed Islamabad’s airport as Benazir Bhutto International. The Rawalpindi hospital where Bhutto was taken after her assassination was also renamed after her.
Bhutto, whose party heads the ruling coalition, was killed in a suicide gun and bomb attack after she addressed an election rally in the garrison town of Rawalpindi on December 27.
Another suicide attack had killed at least 139 people at Bhutto’s homecoming parade when she returned to Karachi in October from eight years of self-imposed exile.
A pro-Western liberal with populist appeal despite foes’ accusations of corruption, Bhutto had been encouraged by the United States to return to work with Musharraf against forces of religious conservatism fuelling militancy in the Muslim nation.
The PPP held gatherings across Pakistan on Saturday and encouraged followers to donate blood to celebrate Bhutto’s life and political martyrdom.
Her widower and political successor, Asif Ali Zardari, gave blood at the Bhutto family residence in Naudero in the southern province of Sindh, having prayed at her tomb a day earlier.
“We don’t know if it is a day to celebrate or to mourn. Everyone is in tears,” said Asghar Ali, one of many loyalists thronging the mansion.
A wave of sympathy helped Bhutto’s PPP win February’s election.
The party heads a coalition that is still struggling to find its feet at a time when Pakistan in danger of sliding into an economic morass and facing mounting U.S. pressure to do more to quell Taliban militants based close to the Afghan border.
Pakistan has formally requested a U.N. investigation into Bhutto’s assassination.
The PPP harbors deep suspicion over official findings that Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud was behind the conspiracy. (Additional reporting by Oshaq Mirani and Aftab Borka; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by David Fogarty)