On April 15, the UN Commission investigating the terrorist assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto released its report, describing in detail the circumstances surrounding this great national tragedy of Pakistan occurring in the fateful evening of December 27, 2007 at Liyaqat Bagh in Rawalpindi. The 64-page report holds the former regime of President General Pervez Musharraf responsible for the assassination of Ms Bhutto on two counts: one, its “deliberate” failure to provide proper security to Ms Bhutto after her return to Pakistan from political exile in Dubai in October 2007; two, the “deliberate” attempt to sabotage the criminal investigation process by hosing down the murder scene, preventing her autopsy for eight hours after her death and identifying both the killer and the cause of her death within 24-hour of the assassination.
Unlike the high-powered UN Commission formed to investigate the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, pinpointing the assassins of Ms Bhutto was not the mandate of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Benazir Bhutto’s murder—which began work in July last year, and was headed by the Chilean ambassador to the UN, Heraldo Muñoz, and supported by Marzuki Darusman, a former attorney-general of Indonesia, and Peter Fitzgerald, a veteran of the Irish police. However, the manner in which the UN report has narrated the circumstantial evidence extensively substantiates most of the popularly-held beliefs regarding the tragedy, including the issue of serious security lapse as well as the flawed nature of investigations carried out by the previous regime.
Failure to Investigate
“The failure of the police to investigate effectively Ms Bhutto's assassination was deliberate,” states the UN report. It points out that Saud Aziz, Rawalpindi’s City Police Officer (CPO) at the time, had not only destroyed crucial evidence at the murder scene but was also guilty of the “deliberate prevention” of a post-mortem, adding that the officer “did not act independently of higher authorities.” The report suggests Aziz was acting under the direction of the then head of the Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Nadeem Ijaz Ahmad. It further accuses the country’s intelligence agencies for “severely hampering” the investigations.
The report says that Ms Bhutto’s assassination could have been prevented if adequate security measures had been taken: “The responsibility for Ms Bhutto's security on the day of her assassination rested with the federal government, the government of Punjab and the Rawalpindi district police. None of these entities took the necessary measures to respond to the extraordinary, fresh and urgent security risks that they knew she faced.”
As for the then government’s investigation into Ms Bhutto’s assassination, the report makes a frequent reference to the controversial press conference held in the evening of December 28, 2007, within 24-hours of the assassination by Brig Javed Cheema, the then head of the Crisis Management Cell of the Interior Ministry, in which he produced audiotapes to claim that al-Qaeda-linked Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud had ordered the assassination of Ms Bhutto. Brig Cheema had additionally claimed that Ms Bhutto had not died because of a bullet wound but due to a fatal injury caused by the lever of the vehicle she was riding and which was struck by an explosion caused by the suicide bombing. Brig. Cheema's declaration that the assassination was ordered by Mehsud “pre-empted, prejudiced and hindered the subsequent investigation,” states the UN report.
After the release of the UN report, the onus of responsibility for tracing the killers of Ms Bhutto’s murder has effectively shifted to the current government led by the Pakistan Peoples’ Party of the late prime minister and headed by her widower President Asif Ali Zardari. Even though much of what this report says was already in public knowledge, it serves the government’s originally-stated purpose of involving an independent international commission in the inquiry of circumstances causing Ms Bhutto’s assassination and impeding its subsequent criminal investigation.
In the last over two years, the PPP-led government has achieved many successes in the country’s political domain and its counter-terrorism policy. It has shown the due resolve against terrorism, and, with the help of constructive public opinion and proactive military campaign, rendered a mortal blow to all-Qaeda-linked Taliban and other terrorist-insurgent groups. In recent months, the government has arrested scores of Afghan Taliban leaders. Its counter-terrorism successes have enabled Pakistan to enhance its role in the international counter-terrorism campaign in the region and the emerging process to politically resolve the lingering conflict in Afghanistan.
On the domestic front, the present government’s achievements range from incorporating the 18th Amendment in the Constitution, which was unanimously passed by both the National Assembly and the Senate and then signed by President Zardari on April 19. The amendment restores the 1973 parliamentary Constitution in its letter and spirit, thereby ensuing parliamentary supremacy, provincial autonomy, judicial independence, minority rights—and much more. Before this, the government took a key step towards provincial harmony by creating inter-provincial consensus on the long-standing unresolved issue of the National Finance Commission Award. The pioneering governmental declaration pertaining to legitimate rights due to the long-aggrieved province of Balochistan is aside.
Unfortunately, due to the aggravating energy crisis, reflected in prolonged load-shedding of electricity supply across the country, all of these marvelous achievements have not received the due public recognition and appreciation. The continuing terrorist backlash is another major distraction in this context. For instance, April 19th signing of the 18th Amendment by President Zardari went unnoticed because of the two deadly bombings in Peshawar killing two dozen innocent people, including a young student outside a school and a Jamaat-e-Islami rally protesting against load-shedding in a busy market of the city.
Despite these grave issues, the government has to move fast forward in completing its own criminal investigation into Ms Bhutto’s murder—to take a clue from the circumstantial evidence provided by the UN report and trace the killers of Ms Bhutto and their motivations. However, while doing so, it has to be extremely careful in not engaging in any sort of political vendetta or tarnishing the image of state institutions. Whether it is the current case of a high-profile murder or the past issue of nuclear proliferation by A Q Khan, there are always a handful of criminally-minded individuals involved in such affairs.
The investigation process must aim to pinpoint who these individuals were and what their motivations were. All possibilities, including that of the involvement in this case of international terror network like al-Qaeda—which has an interest in scuttling democracy by killing populist leaders like Ms Bhutto—should not be ruled out. That extremist forces have long desired to eliminate liberate or moderate political leaders in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world is not a secret.
The government has already made a wise move to suspend scores of government officials and place them and many other former officials on the Exit Control List. They include CPO Aziz, his three subordinate police officers (Yaseen Farooq, Ashfaq Sarwar and Khurram Shahzad), Chaudhry Abdul Majeed, presently an additional inspector general of the Punjab police, Brig Cheema, former chief of Intelligence Bureau Brig. Ijaz Shah, former Interior Secretary Syed Kamal Shah, Ashfaq Anwar, a senior officer of the Punjab Government, and former Director General of Inter Services Intelligence, Gen. Hamid Gul. Reportedly, Brig Ijaz, Gen Gul, and the former Chief Minister of Punjab Pervez Illahi were the three individuals named by late Ms Bhutto as posing a threat to her security in her October 16, 2007 letter to President Musharraf.
In his response to the UN Report, President Zardari's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar has stated, “Persons named in the report for negligence or complicity in the conspiracy will be investigated and cases also brought against them.” Both Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira and Interior Minister Rehman Malik have said that steps will be taken to bring back Musharraf, if he is found responsible for the tragic incident.
For his part, Mr. Musharraf remains unconcerned. His lawyer has taken a plea that when the tragic incident occurred, his client had surrendered the post of army chief and the country was under a caretaker government.
While the government has, indeed, taken the necessary step of suspending top government officials named in the UN report, as well as ensuing that they and other suspects in the case should not run away from the country, it will be under intense public scrutiny for completing what the UN Commission of Enquiry into Benazir Bhutto’s murder was not mandated for: basically answering two key questions—who killed her, and why was she killed?
Just to reiterate a point made before, by involving the UN, the government wanted an international cover for what it does on the basis of the UN report to tell us the whole story of the tragic demise of a charismatic Pakistani leader, who was also a living testimony of conservative Muslims’ desire to be led by a woman leader.
In Pakistan’s nearly 63-year sordid history, mystery has continued to shroud over high-profile assassinations such as first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s murder in 1950 at the same site where Ms Bhutto was assassinated. No one yet has a clue as to whether Gen Ziaul Haq’s death in a 1988 air crash was an accident or result of a conspiracy. Nor has the nation been able to find who killed Ms Bhutto’s brother, Murtaza Bhutto, in 1995 in a late night shootout in Karachi. At least, for once, Pakistanis must find out the truth behind the most recent political tragedy in the country’s dark history.
It is a question of credibility for the government led by a party which was founded by the country’s first populist prime minister and Ms Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was handed after a controversial judicial trial. It is as well an issue of credibility for Pakistan, because what the UN report does is that it puts the country in international spotlight insofar as the functional efficiency of its state and government institutions involved in the prevention of crime and bringing criminals to justice is concerned.