The million dollar question: Who killed Benazir?

The last time I met Benazir Bhutto was a few weeks before her death. At her residence in Karachi, she addressed a press conference, wooing the media with her diplomatic replies. My last memory of her is Benazir signing a book for me, a chronology of the Pakistan People’s Party’s achievements over the last few ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

The last time I met Benazir Bhutto was a few weeks before her death. At her residence in Karachi, she addressed a press conference, wooing the media with her diplomatic replies. My last memory of her is Benazir signing a book for me, a chronology of the Pakistan People's Party's achievements over the last few decades. Soon after, I left for Lahore and it was there that my phone rang and I found out she'd been killed. The moon turned a reddish hue, the country went up in flames and millions wept.

Today, the U.N. commission, a fact-finding mission into the circumstances behind Benazir Bhutto's murder, released its findings. In a press conference, Permanent Representative of Chile to the U.N. and Head of the Commission Heraldo Munoz blamed the Musharraf government for not providing adequate security to Ms. Bhutto despite knowing the threats that she faced, and for impeding the investigation into the causes of her death. Additionally, they also blamed the Pakistan People's Party, saying the party had taken inadequate measures for her protection.

The last time I met Benazir Bhutto was a few weeks before her death. At her residence in Karachi, she addressed a press conference, wooing the media with her diplomatic replies. My last memory of her is Benazir signing a book for me, a chronology of the Pakistan People’s Party’s achievements over the last few decades. Soon after, I left for Lahore and it was there that my phone rang and I found out she’d been killed. The moon turned a reddish hue, the country went up in flames and millions wept.

Today, the U.N. commission, a fact-finding mission into the circumstances behind Benazir Bhutto’s murder, released its findings. In a press conference, Permanent Representative of Chile to the U.N. and Head of the Commission Heraldo Munoz blamed the Musharraf government for not providing adequate security to Ms. Bhutto despite knowing the threats that she faced, and for impeding the investigation into the causes of her death. Additionally, they also blamed the Pakistan People’s Party, saying the party had taken inadequate measures for her protection.

In the press conference, Heraldo Munoz referenced the Oct. 18, 2007 attack on Benazir’s convoy as she returned to Karachi. According to the report:

The Sindh police investigation of the attack never advanced. A former high level ISI official told the Commission, however, that the ISI conducted its own investigation and near the end of October 2007, captured and detained four suspects from a militant cell; the whereabouts of these four could not be confirmed by the Commission as of March 2010.

O Suspects Where Art Thou

Now, on to the highlights of the report:

On 20 December [2007], the Military Operations Directorate informed Interior Secretary Syed Kamal Shah that Usama bin Laden had ordered the assassination of General Pervez Musharraf, Ms. Bhutto and Maulana Fazal ur Rahman, a religious and political leader. Another warned that an attack on Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Malik could be launched on 21 December.

This proves Munoz’s point: if the Pakistani government at the time knew that Benazir had a specific threat (with a date that was just six days before the day of her actual death), why did they not take adequate measures to ensure Bhutto’s security?

Secondly:

The Commission has reviewed one Interior Ministry letter, dated 22 October 2007, which is clearly a federal directive. Sent to all provincial governments, it orders them to provide stringent and specific security measures for Messrs. Shaukat Aziz and Chaudhry Shujat Hussain as ex-prime ministers. Both were from the PML-Q party and were General Musharraf’s close allies. The annex to the Interior Ministry letter instructed provincial authorities to provide VVIP-level security for the two ex-prime ministers, listing the specific measures to be implemented. Despite a search of their archives, at the request of the Commission, Punjab provincial authorities could not find a similar directive from federal authorities in the case of Ms. Bhutto, also an ex-prime minister. The Commission was told by the then Interior Secretary Mr. Kamal Shah that the 22 October directive was the result of an instruction from Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. When asked why no such directive was issued to safeguard Ms. Bhutto, he did not provide a clear answer, noting only that federal authorities had issued a directive on 18 October to Sindh provincial authorities to protect Ms. Bhutto when she arrived from exile. The Commission finds it inexcusable that federal authorities did not issue a similarly clear directive as the 22 October directive for ex-Prime Ministers Aziz and Hussain to protect Ms. Bhutto. This is all the more troubling as she had been attacked in Karachi just three days prior to the 22 October directive, and intelligence agencies had specific, ongoing and credible threats to her.

Shaukat Aziz should be grateful he’s not in the country right now.

And it’s not just the government that the Commission blames for the lack of security.

Despite considerable and valiant efforts by individual PPP members to protect Ms. Bhutto, the PPP as an organization was inadequate to handle the challenges. There was no person in overall charge of the PPP’s provision of security. As a result, the PPP’s security for Ms. Bhutto was characterized by a lack of direction and professionalism. However, the Commission reiterates that the responsibility for failing to protect Ms. Bhutto lies with the Government of Pakistan.

What might be potentially embarrassing for certain members of the ruling PPP is the Commission describing a Mercedes-Benz leaving before Benazir’s convoy had left Liaquat Bagh that fateful evening.

The black bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz car was the first to leave the parking area. It is not clear how much distance there was between this vehicle and the rest of Ms. Bhutto’s convoy at the moment of the blast. Credible reports range from 100 meters to 250 meters. Some of those in the car said that they were close enough to Ms. Bhutto’s vehicle to feel the impact of the blast. Others at the site of the blast have said that the Mercedes-Benz left Liaquat Bagh so quickly that it was nowhere to be seen when the blast occurred. Indeed, the Commission has not seen this vehicle in the many video images of the exit area it reviewed. Despite the acknowledgement of some occupants of the vehicle that they felt the impact of the blast, the Commission finds it incredible that they drove all the way to Zardari House, a drive of about 20 minutes, before they became aware that Ms. Bhutto had been injured in the blast. They should have stopped at a safe distance when they felt the blast so as to check on Ms. Bhutto’s condition, the condition of her vehicle and whether the back-up vehicle was required. Indeed, as the back-up vehicle, the Mercedes-Benz car would have been an essential element of Ms. Bhutto’s convoy on the return trip even if the occupants of that car had confirmed that Ms. Bhutto had been unscathed in the attack.

The occupants of the car, ladies and gentlemen, were Interior Minister Rehman Malik, and Minister for Law Babar Awan. Conspiracy theorists will lap this bit up, considering how many plots one has heard in the past two years involving Benazir’s widower, now-Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and his associates as accomplices to her murder. And as the report mentions, the occupants of the car, one of whom was "coordinating with Ms. Bhutto’s private detail" should have stopped and verified if Ms. Bhutto was safe after the attack and frankly speaking, not raced on ahead to "welcome" her. 

The report also highlights how badly prepared Benazir’s handpicked choices to handle her security were. The report describes this scene before the assassination attempt:

Major Imtiaz, who was sitting in the front seat of the Land Cruiser, said that he was worried that the convoy was being slowed down by the crowd. He wanted to call CPO Saud Aziz by cell phone, but he did not have the CPO’s direct number.

Lest we forget: This is Pakistan, where every journalist and politician has the cell phone numbers of police officers on their cell phones. How did Major Imtiaz only have a landline number for Aziz?

And even though the report is appalled at the decision to destroy the crime scene by hosing it down, it reiterates:

The Commission is not convinced that the decision to wash the scene was made by CPO Saud Aziz alone. The attack was too significant and the target of the attack too important to Pakistani society to make such a decision solely on his level. Sources told the Commission that CPO Saud Aziz was constantly talking on his mobile phone while at the hospital. In the Commission’s view, he has not adequately explained who called him during that time. Other sources have provided credible information about the intervention of intelligence agencies in the case. Whoever was responsible for this decision, and for whatever reason, acted in a manner that is contrary to the most basic police standards and hampered the proper investigation of the assassination.

"Establishment," the U.N. is looking at you.

Let us be clear: the U.N. Commission’s mandate, as mentioned on Page 66 of the report, is "to determine the facts and circumstances of the assassination for former Prime Minister of Pakistan Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto." Answering questions after reading out the executive summary of the report, Heraldo Munoz denied conspiracy theories that Zardari was behind her death. Munoz also laid blame squarely at the feet of the police and the intelligence agencies, for not providing adequate security, preserving the crime scene, for not conducting an autopsy and for prematurely announcing that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mehsud was behind her death, which impeded the investigation. The commission also urged Pakistani authorities to investigate the financers, executors, and planners of the assassination of Ms. Bhutto.

Benazir Bhutto has been dead for more than two years now. The report, which hardly tells us anything new, will not help assuage the grief of the PPP supporters who loved Ms. Bhutto, unless the Government of Pakistan steps up in an effort to truly investigate the million dollar question: "Who Killed Benazir?" and also probes who bungled up the investigation. Until then, conspiracy theories, rumors, and the blame game will continue.

Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan.

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