x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The shadow that looms over Pakistan

Little has been done to investigate the death of the former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who died a year ago.

Benazir Bhutto waves to supporters shortly before she was assassinated at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi on Dec 27 2007.
Benazir Bhutto waves to supporters shortly before she was assassinated at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi on Dec 27 2007.

Benazir Bhutto, the first woman elected prime minister of an Islamic country, had just addressed a teeming election rally in Liaquat Park, Rawalpindi, and was preparing to leave. As her bulletproof white Toyota Land Cruiser tried to edge through the crowd, her head and shoulders appeared through the sunroof. She had stood to salute the masses. Seconds later a man in sunglasses took out a handgun and fired off four rounds. Almost simultaneously an explosion ripped through the crowd killing at least 23 bystanders. Bhutto, unconscious and with apparent head injuries, was taken to Rawalpindi General Hospital and declared dead at 6.16pm local time. The assassination a year ago today reverberated around the world with footage from the scene dominating news bulletins. Yet 12 months on, Pakistani authorities have shown remarkably little enthusiasm about bringing Bhutto's killers to justice. The first person arrested in the case, the 15-year-old madrasa dropout Aitzaz Shah, has been in detention since January. He was not even charged until earlier this month. Frequent court adjournments have meant that his trial, and that of his co-accused, has barely got underway. Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, now the president of Pakistan, insists the Pakistani authorities should not take the lead in the investigation. He has repeatedly pressed for a UN inquiry, similar to one into the death of the Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, on the grounds that any inquiry conducted by his government would lack credibility. Privately, senior members of Bhutto's Pakistani People's Party express bafflement as to why her widower is not pursuing the case more actively. They point out that as well as Mr Zardari being president, Bhutto's long-standing close adviser, Rehman Malik, now controls the interior ministry. They argue that the full weight of the Pakistani state could have been put behind a speedy, high-profile trial. Instead there have been repeated delays and when the court has sat, its proceedings have received only scant coverage from the official news agency, APP. Senior Pakistani officials, however, insist that investigations are being conducted with a view to gathering evidence for the UN. They claim to have made progress on the question of why the crime scene was hosed down and opened to traffic within hours of Bhutto's murder taking place. And they say they have seized records of all the mobile phone calls made both before and after her death from people who were in the vicinity of the murder scene in Rawalpindi. Bhutto had returned to Pakistan with her eyes open to the dangers. Heir to a large estate in Sindh, she had seen her ambitious father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, rise to be president and later prime minister of Pakistan, only for him to be deposed and executed by Gen Zia ul Haq. Inheriting the leadership of the Pakistan People's Party, Bhutto twice served as prime minister, but both times was removed from office amid allegations of corruption. Forced into an eight-year exile in Dubai, she had negotiated her return with Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president at the time, to prepare for the 2008 elections. But when she flew to Karachi on Oct 18, vowing to bring democracy back to Pakistan, she left her two daughters and husband in Dubai. As she saidin her book Reconciliation, published after her death: "We wanted to make sure that no matter what happened, our daughters and son would have a parent to take care of them." The peril she had placed herself in was apparent immediately. Shortly after landing at Karachi, two suicide bombers detonated explosives in an apparent assassination attempt, killing 139 people. Bhutto survived, but it was a chilling portent of what was to come 10 weeks later. Since her death, the Pakistani press has tended to concentrate on how she died rather than who did it. Within hours of her assassination, images captured on mobile phones began appearing on YouTube. The pictures clearly show a young man, clean shaven with dark glasses, aiming a gun at Bhutto and firing. Seconds later there was an explosion. While there are many different explanations of what happened, they can be put into two broad camps: Bhutto's friends and supporters have maintained that she was shot and that there were multiple attackers. The Pakistani authorities, by contrast, have argued that she was killed by the explosion, which smashed her head against the roof of her vehicle. The different narratives are to some extent informed by political considerations. Bhutto's supporters want to establish that there was a sophisticated, officially sponsored conspiracy to assassinate her. The Pakistani state, by contrast, maintained that it was a crude attack organised by Islamic militants and that they were not at fault since nothing could have been done to stop it. The evidence is contradictory. After the shots were fired her movements do not appear to be consistent with someone ducking for cover: it looks as if she was already dead, or at least seriously injured, when she moved back into the vehicle. As the gunman fired at her, her headscarf moved away from her with a jerk. Furthermore, Bhutto's aides, including those who bathed her body in preparation for its burial, insisted there was a bullet wound to her neck. The government, however, points to X-rays taken in the hospital which show a severe injury to her skull. Officials say that wound was the result of her head hitting the side of the escape hatch after the explosion went off and that there was no sign of a bullet wound. Although the doctors at the hospital in Rawalpindi, where her body was taken, have given differing accountstheir evidence is of limited use because they did not perform a proper autopsy. While there are various conspiracy theories, there appears to be two good reasons for the lack of an autopsy. First the authorities were afraid that if Bhutto's body remained in the hospital building the angry crowd outside could have started a riot, broken into Rawalpindi General and destroyed some of the medical facilities. Secondly, her widower was later offered an autopsy, but he said it would not be necessary. Aware of the growing controversy surrounding the way she died, Mr Musharraf asked the British police in Scotland Yard to assist. In February this year Scotland Yard found that while gunshots were fired, they were not the cause of death and that one man had both a pistol and a suicide bomb. The Scotland Yard report, in other words, completely backed the government's version of events. That was one reason people were suspicious, but there was another: the British police failed even to discuss the mobile phone images which suggested that she was shot. It was an omission that led many Pakistanis to conclude there had been a cover-up. The precise cause of death, however, is of limited significance. Clearly someone tried to shoot her and someone, probably the same person, tried to blow her up. The important question is who was behind the assassination. Aitzaz Shah was picked up in Dera Ismail Khan, where he was allegedly preparing to blow himself up at a Shiite mosque during the Ashura festival. He then told police that he had been part of a team who organised Bhutto's murder. As a result of his confession police detained four more alleged co-conspirators: Rafaqat, Husnain Gul, Sher Zaman and Abdul Rashid. Mr Shah, Mr Zaman and Mr Rashid have now been charged with having prior knowledge of the assassination plot and failing to tell the authorities. The remaining two, Mr Rafaqat and Mr Gul, face the more serious charge of facilitating the suicide bomber by providing him with the weapons he used in the attack. The bomber, who died in the attack, was named by Mr Shah, and later the authorities, as Bilal from South Waziristan. According to the police Mr Gul was a madrasa student who in 2007 persuaded his cousin, Mr Rafaqat, to travel with him to North Waziristan. One of Mr Gul's friends had been killed in the assault of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007 and, seeking revenge, he wanted to find a militant group to work for. Having done so, the two young men were instructed to join the group trying to kill Bhutto. The Pakistani authorities believe those orders came from militant leaders in North Waziristan who sought to target Bhutto because they feared she would move against them if she came to power. Within days of the murder Mr Musharraf had named one leader in particular as responsible: Baitullah Mehsud, a young tribesman from Waziristan who had emerged as the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Mr Mehsud has repeatedly denied involvement but Mr Musharraf apparently based his allegation, at least in part, on a tape recording which the Pakistani interior ministry claimed was a phone conversation secretly recorded hours after the assassination. The ministry said the two interlocutors were Mr Mehsud and a militant cleric. This is the transcript of the tape: Cleric: Congratulations, I just got back during the night. Mehsud: Congratulations to you, were they our men? C: Yes, they were ours. M: Who were they? C: There was Saeed, there was Bilal from Badar and Ikramullah. M: The three of them did it? C: Ikramullah and Bilal did it. M: Then congratulations. C: Where are you? I want to meet you. M: I am at Makeen (town in South Waziristan tribal area), come over, I am at Anwar Shah's house. C: OK, I'll come. M: Don't inform their house for the time being. C: OK. M: It was a tremendous effort. They were really brave boys who killed her. While many Pakistanis reflexively dismissed the recording as a fake, people who had met and spoken with Mr Mehsud confirmed that the voice on the tape was his. For all the doubts, the tape could well be genuine. And there has been some corroborative evidence indicating the Pakistani Taliban's involvement. In April 2008 the Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, Tarqi Azizuddin, was kidnapped in the Khyber tribal agency. In the days after he was passed between various groups, eventually ending up in the hands of Mr Mehsud's men. One of the Taliban's demands for release of the ambassador came in the form of a proposed exchange: the Taliban wanted Mr Shah, Mr Gul and Mr Rafaqat to be freed. The case against Mr Mehsud and the others charged with Bhutto's assassination seems strong. The prosecuting authorities have declared him and some of his top associates as proclaimed offenders in the case. And yet the failure of the Pakistani courts to process the case more quickly leaves many open questions. Why is Mr Zardari so determined to pass the whole issue over to the United Nations? Why are Bhutto's closest relatives and friends not organising a quicker investigation? Why has the government not made a greater effort to arrest Mr Mehsud? From the moment Bhutto was killed, many sceptical Pakistanis wryly commented that, despite all the public lamentation, those who ordered her death would never be held accountable. And despite the strong evidence against named suspects in the case, it may well turn out that those cynics were right. Owen Bennett Jones works for the BBC World Service as a presenter of Newshour. In 2008 he won the Sony Radio Gold Award's News Journalist of the Year prize for his coverage of Pakistan, and in particular the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. He is currently working on a new edition of his book Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, to be published by Yale in 2009.