Turtle Bay

Report on Bhutto assassination rips Pakistani government, security agencies

Pervez Musharraf‘s military government failed to fulfill its responsibility to protect former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in the hours leading up to her December 2007 assassination, or to vigorously investigate her killing by a 15-year-old suicide bomber, according to a U.N. fact-finding commission of inquiry. The three-member U.N. commission, headed by Chilean diplomat Heraldo ...

Pervez Musharraf‘s military government failed to fulfill its responsibility to protect former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in the hours leading up to her December 2007 assassination, or to vigorously investigate her killing by a 15-year-old suicide bomber, according to a U.N. fact-finding commission of inquiry.

The three-member U.N. commission, headed by Chilean diplomat Heraldo Muñoz, also accused unnamed high-ranking Pakistani authorities of obstructing the commission’s access to military and intelligence sources.

The 65-page report (pdf) — which relied on interviews with 250 people and several key governments — provided a blistering account of government lapses that led to one of the most significant political assassination in a generation. In one of its most damning passages, it accused police investigators of deliberately seeking to avoid solving the case out of fear of discovering the possible involvement of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.

"Ms Bhutto’s assassination could have been prevented if adequate security measures had been taken," the report stated. It said that none of Pakistan’s local or national security authorities "took the necessary to respond to the extraordinary, fresh and urgent security risks that they knew she faced."

The report also harshly critiques Bhutto’s political party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), for failing to provide adequate back-up security for the former Pakistani leader. Many of those individuals are now in the government of Bhutto’s husband, President Ali Asif Zardari, who was partly involved in overseeing his wife’s security.

But the report charges Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who was responsible for providing supplemental security on the day of the attack, with fleeing the scene of the explosion, leaving Bhutto’s vehicle isolated, a decision that amounted to "a serious security lapse."

"The commission recognizes the heroism of individual PPP supporters, many of whom sacrificed themselves to protect her; however, the additional security arrangements of the PPP lacked leadership and were inadequate and poorly inadequate."

The sharply worded tone of the report appeared to take Pakistani authorities by surprise. Minutes after a copy was presented to the Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador Abdullah Haroon, he cancelled a scheduled press conference and announced he would be traveling back to Pakistan to hand-deliver the information to his government.

The Dec. 27, 2007, attack took place as Bhutto was leaving a campaign rally in a neighborhood in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. She died after the force of the explosive forced her head into the handle of an escape hatch of a campaign vehicle. Twenty-four other people were killed in the attack and another 91 were injured.

The commission found that local police "inflicted irreparable damage to the investigation" by hosing down the crime scene hours after Bhutto’s assassination and failing to collect evidence. It also challenged the Pakistani government’s assertion, made in a press conference shortly after Bhutto’s assassination, that a Taliban militant, Baitullah Mehsud, was the mastermind behind the killing. It said that telephone intercepts provided by the Intelligence-Services Intelligence, the powerful Pakistani spy agency, were too ambiguous to prove Mehsud’s role in the attack.

The U.N. commission said that the police investigators focused primarily on low-level operatives and ignored potential suspects "further up the hierarchy in the planning, financing and execution of the assassination." It also said the investigation was "severely hampered" by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, which conducted a parallel investigation and selectively shared information with the police.

"The commission believes that the failure of the police to investigate effectively Ms. Bhutto’ assassination was deliberate," the commission concluded. And it called on the Pakistan "to carry out a serious, credible, criminal investigation that determines who conceived, ordered and executed this heinous crime of historic proportions, and brings those responsible to justice."

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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