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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Who killed former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto?

Ten years ago Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan to run in elections. Within two months a suicide attack had killed her but authorities are no closer to catching her killers 

Supporters of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) hold a candle vigil in the memory of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto in Lahore, on December 31, 2007. Arif Ali / AFP
Supporters of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) hold a candle vigil in the memory of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto in Lahore, on December 31, 2007. Arif Ali / AFP

On a late September evening at a tea stall in Lyari, one of the poorest and until recently one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Karachi, a small group of Pakistan People’s Party members were discussing the verdict of a special Pakistani court on the murder of Benazir Bhutto.

Their former party chief and the first female prime minister of an Islamic state was killed on December 27, 2007 outside a large electoral gathering of her supporters in Rawalpindi when a gunman shot her and set off a bomb. At least 24 other people were killed and several more were injured.

After nearly ten years of repeated investigation by Pakistan’s chaotic judicial system and a distinct lack of interest from the government, on August 31 an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi declared Pervez Musharraf, the country’s former president and army chief to be a fugitive from justice in the Bhutto assassination case. The court also acquitted five suspected members of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a Pakistani terror group, of all charges of conspiring to murder Bhutto.

Seven TTP militants accused of involvement in the murder have been killed in military operations since 2007. The head of the outfit, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a drone strike in South Waziristan in August 2009.

The court also sentenced two high-ranking police officers, Khurram Shahzad and Saud Aziz, to 17 years in prison for negligence for failing to properly guard Bhutto. Shahzad hosed down the crime scene with water in less than two hours after the attack while Aziz refused repeatedly to allow a postmortem on the prime minister's body.

Pakistani police escort Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a militant with links to Osama bin Laden in connection with an October 2007 assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto, to a court appearance in Karachi on March 15, 2008. Akhtar, who was accused by Bhutto of plotting against her in her posthumously published memoirs, was seized February 25. Akhtar, the one-time head of Harkat Jihad-e-Islami, the main Pakistan support group for Afghanistan's Taliban regime, was arrested in the United Arab Emirates in August 2004 and later extradited to Pakistan.    AFP PHOTO/Asif HASSAN / AFP PHOTO / ASIF HASSAN
Pakistani police escort Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a militant with links to Osama bin Laden in connection with the October 2007 assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto, to a court appearance in Karachi on March 15, 2008. Akhtar, who was accused by Bhutto of plotting against her in her posthumously published memoirs, was seized on February 25. Akhtar, the one-time head of Harkat Jihad-e-Islami, the main Pakistan support group for Afghanistan's Taliban regime, was arrested in the UAE in August 2004 and later extradited to Pakistan. Asif Hassn / AFP

“I am not satisfied with the court decree. There is no clue on who killed Bhutto. The court released all the suspected militants and only punished two police officers,” said Muhammad Ali, one of the supporters of the PPP, a Pakistani liberal political party.

“It shows that no one is serious about bringing the real killers of Bhutto to justice and the government just wants to get rid of the case.”

Two months before Bhuttos’ killing, on October 18, 2007, at least 130 people, most of them also from Lyari neighbourhood, were killed when two bombs exploded in the crowd celebrating Bhutto's return to Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile in Dubai and London. Mr Ali was there and was slightly injured. Bhutto was unhurt.

A Pakistani policeman stands beside of a burning police van in front of a vehicle carrying of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto at the bomb explosion site in Karachi, 18 October 2007. At least 105 people were killed and 200 injured when two bombs exploded near former premier Benazir Bhutto's truck during her Pakistan homecoming parade.  AFP PHOTO/Aamir QURESHI / AFP PHOTO / AAMIR QURESHI
A Pakistani policeman stands beside of a burning police van in front of a vehicle carrying of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto at the bomb explosion site in Karachi on October 18, 2007. AFP

Most party workers, like Mr Ali - indeed, many Pakistanis - are disappointed with the court verdict, as it explains nothing.

Conspiracy theories abound: was it the TTP chief Mehsud? Was the suicide bomber a TTP member? Was it Musharraf? Was the lax security the fault of Pervez Ilahi, chief minister of Punjab at the time, or Bhutto's own bodyguards?

Pakistanis love conspiracy theories, says Owais Tohid, an Islamabad-based journalist who interviewed Bhutto twice after her return to Pakistan. “We as people still love to believe that America must be behind 9/11 or military dictator General Ziaul Haq's plane was blown into pieces by America's CIA or Bin laden is still alive.”

Yet from anti-terrorism courts to Scotland Yard detectives to a United Nations fact-finding mission, no one has produced anything concrete on Bhutto’s killers.

Bhutto’s children were also disappointed. Her son Bilawal, who now leads the party after graduating from Oxord University (like his mother) called the August 31 verdict “unacceptable” on Twitter and said he would "explore legal options.” His sister Aseefa said: “10 years later and we still await justice. Abettors punished but those truly guilty of my mother’s murder roam free.”

Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s husband and former president challenged the acquittal of five TTP suspects in Lahore High Court. He also objected to the 17-year prison terms for the two police officers and questioned why a case against Musharraf was separated from the Bhutto assassination case.

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Read more:

Mourning at Bhutto's UAE home

Body of Bhutto's mum flown to Pakistan on Sheikh Mohammed's plane

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Musharraf, who came to power in a nonviolent coup in 1999, was charged in 2014 with high treason. He spent some time under house arrest but left the country in 2016 on the pretext of needing medical treatment.

Sixty-eight witnesses gave evidence in the murder trial, but legal analysts say the case lacked credibility throughout.

“The Bhutto investigation seemed to be a deliberate sabotage to not allow the investigation to lead to the logical conclusion, which in my opinion led to Musharraf and his cronies,” said Saroop Ijaz, a Lahore-based lawyer and researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The anti-terrorism court’s judgment is a farce, it fails to hold anyone directly accountable and lacks legal reasoning and moral courage.”

The court found the two police officers guilty of aiding and abetting and destroying evidence but no one guilty of the actual murder. “This is without precedent and shameful. The Benazir Bhutto trial was about holding the powerful responsible [Musharraf] and closure for hundreds of millions of Pakistanis and the investigation and the court has failed on both counts,” Mr Ijaz said.

“A cataclysmic event in the country’s history appears to have ended with a whimper in court,” was the verdict of Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English newspaper.

Musharraf’s political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, also protested against the court verdict and said it would challenge it.

“Previously, it was informed that Musharraf’s case had been separated from the main case, but the decision reflected that it was given in haste, which is totally contradictory to the charges, evidences and statement in the case,” said secretary-general Dr Mohammad Amjad.

Supporters of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) hold candles during a homage ceremony in Lahore, 29 December 2007.  Around 10,000 people chanted anti-government slogans while holding prayers for slain Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in the city of Lahore, witnesses said.     AFP PHOTO/Arif ALI / AFP PHOTO / Arif Ali
Supporters of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) hold candles during a homage ceremony in Lahore on December 29, 2007. Arif Ali / AFP

In a video posted on social media on September 21, Musharraf accused Asif Zardari of "murdering" his wife Bhutto and her brother, Murtaza, who was killed in September 1996 in a police shootout in Karachi.

In the Lahore high court, On September 29, Pakistan's civilian intelligence agency, the Federal Investigation Agency, also challenged the verdict, arguing that the five TTP members, who were acquitted in a lower court despite confessing their involvement in Bhutto's death, and the two guilty police officers should all be sentenced to death.

But lawyers for the five acquitted said the FIA's case against them was full of flaws.

Naseer Tanoli, who represents Aitzaz Shah, one of the five, said his client had been arrested a month before his arrest was recorded. “The police recovered a Tasbih [prayer beads] and some cash from him. No weapons or anything prohibited was recovered from his possession,” he said.

In April 2010, a three-member UN commission declared Musharraf’s administration responsible for failing to provide Bhutto with adequate security.

“A range of government officials failed profoundly in their efforts first to protect Ms Bhutto, and second to investigate with vigour all those responsible for her murder, not only in the execution of the attack, but also in its conception, planning and financing,” the UN report concluded.

Born in 1953 in Sindh province, educated at Oxford and Harvard, as a politician, Bhutto presented herself as moderate and democratic. Her fanily had known violence: her father, Zulfikar, who was also Pakistan’s premier in the early 1970s, was executed.

She was twice prime minister of Pakistan, from 1988 to 1990, and from 1993 to 1996, and both times, the presiding president dismissed her government for alleged corruption. After her last term, she fled abroad, returning after eight years to stand in the 2008 general election.

Pakistani People's Party (PPP) leader, Benazir Bhutto holds a press conference in front of a poster of her father, executed Prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at her home, 17 November 1988 in Larkana, as she won first parliamentary elections. / AFP PHOTO / DOUGLAS E. CURRAN
Benazir Bhutto holds a press conference in front of a poster of her father, executed prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at her home on November 1988 in Larkana, as she won first parliamentary elections. Douglas Curran / AFP

Tohid, the journalist, says the assassins were chasing Bhutto the moment she landed in Karachi.

“My people badly need me and I need them to end this terrorism and extremism. But it's going to be a long battle,” Bhutto told Tohid after the attack at her homecoming rally.

Analysts believe her death left a political vacuum in the country and weakened her own political party. The wave of popular sympathy triggered by her assassination strengthened the PPP's showing in the 2008 general elections. The party vowed to unravel the plot behind her death and to punish her killers. Bhutto's widower became president after the election and the party has slumped into its worst crisis ever, with poor organisation, bad governance and, most importantly, a lack of dynamic political leadership.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan exploited that vacuum and his party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, and its aggressive campaigns against corruption, has taken the place of the PPP.

In a by-election on September 17, the PPP came fifth in a Lahore district once considered one of its strongholds, bagging a mere 1,414 votes. The winner, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz secured 61,254 votes.

No one from the PPP turned up to hear the court's judgment on August 31 and during its time in office, from 2008 to 2013, the party did little to investigate their leader's murder. They handed the job to the UN instead.

Not that that has stopped them using the Bhutto name when it suits them. A decade on, PPP leaders still promise to bring her murderer to justice.

“That will probably be the slogan in the next elections as well,” Tohid said.

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TIMELINE

June 1953: Born in Karachi

1969: Gains degree from Harvard

1973: Her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, founder of Pakistan People’s Party, becomes prime minister

1977: Awarded a second degree from Oxford University. Days after returning to Pakistan General Zia-ul-Haq seizes power from her father

1979: Her father executed by the military government

1979-84: Arrested several times and placed under house arrest for three years

1984: Returns to London and becomes leader in exile of PPP

1986: Returns to Pakistan after martial law lifted

Pakistani People's Party leader (PPP), Benazir Bhutto, adresses a press conference to foreign and Pakistani journalists, 11 April 1986, after her release in Lahore. Born in 1953 in Karachi and eldest daughter of former Prime Minister of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, she studied at Harvard University. In 1979 her father is hanged and she becomes leader of Pakistan People's Party. Benazir Bhutto spends seven years in exile or under house arrest. In 1986 Bhutto returns to Pakistan and on April 1987 becomes Prime Minister of Pakistan.  On December 2, 1988 Benazir Bhutto was sworn in as Prime Minister of Pakistan, becoming the first woman to head the government of an Islamic State. She was re-elected in 1993 but was dismissed three years later accused of corruption scandals concerning contracts awarded to Swiss companies during her regime. In 1996 Bhutto removed from government and lived in exile in UK. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, spent eight years in jail until he was released in November 2004. / AFP PHOTO / STAFF
Pakistani People's Party leader (PPP), Benazir Bhutto, addresses a press conference to foreign and Pakistani journalists, on April 11 1986, after her release in Lahore. AFP

1988: Becomes the first woman elected as prime minister of an Islamic country

1990: Dismissed from office for alleged corruption

1993: Re-elected as prime minister but faces fierce opposition.

1996: Again dismissed from office on corruption charges

1997: Her husband Asif Ali Zardari imprisoned and Bhutto goes into self-imposed exile

Sacked Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto addresses a press conference at her residence after the court verdict rejecting her petition against her dismissal, 29 January. Bhutto said she was not desperate and that the verdict was not unexpected. Bhutto's government was dismissed by the President Farooq Leghari on 05 November last year.  / AFP PHOTO / SAEED KHAN
Sacked prime minister Benazir Bhutto addresses a press conference at her residence after the court verdict rejecting her petition against her dismissal on January 29, 1997. Bhutto said she was not desperate and that the verdict was not unexpected. Saeed Khan / AFP

1999: Army chief Pervez Musharraf takes power in bloodless coup

2001: Bhutto sentenced to three years in prison for failing to appear in court to face corruption charges

2004: Bhutto and her husband receive six-month suspended sentences from a Swiss court for money laundering

October 2007: Bhutto returns to Pakistan ahead of elections

October 19: Survives suicide bombing that kills 150 people at a rally in Karachi

December 27: Bhutto is assassinated in a gun and suicide bomb attack at an election rally in Rawalpindi. Another 24 people killed

August 31, 2017: Anti-terrorism court acquits five members of Tehreek-e-Taliban of her killing and declares Musharraf a fugitive from justice in the case