Absent Accountability

The long-awaited UN "fact-finding" report has blamed the assassination of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on the federal government's "fatally insufficient and ineffective" security for her. The 65-page report released April 15 in the UN Headquarters in New York added that subsequent investigation by the federal and Punjab governments into her death were "prejudiced" and "involved a whitewash." However, the UN Commission of Inquiry, appointed last year by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the request of the Pakistani government, reached no conclusion as to the organizers and sponsors behind the attack in which a 15-year-old suicide bomber blew up Benazir's vehicle in the city of Rawalpindi on 27 December 2007.
Former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf was ruling the country when Benazir was assassinated. The present federal government, led by the assassinated prime minister's Pakistan People's Party, will order afresh criminal investigation to reach the planners and executers of this murder.

The report found that the Pakistani government was quick to blame local Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud and Al-Qaida although Benazir´s foes potentially included elements from the establishment itself. It read: "A range of government officials failed profoundly in their efforts first to protect Benazir 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 Commission said. "Responsibility for Ms. Bhutto's security on the day of her assassination rested with the federal government, the (provincial) government of Punjab and the Rawalpindi District Police. None of these entities took necessary measures to respond to the extraordinary, fresh and urgent security risks that they knew she faced."

The report said the then federal government lacked a comprehensive security plan, relying instead on provincial authorities, but then failed to issue to them the necessary instructions.

"Particularly inexcusable was the government's failure to direct provincial authorities to provide Ms. Bhutto the same stringent and specific security measures it ordered on 22 October, 2007, for two other former prime ministers who belonged to the main political party supporting General Musharraf," it stated.

"This discriminatory treatment is profoundly troubling given the devastating attempt on her life only three days earlier and the specific threats against her which were being tracked by the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence agency)," it added, stressing that her assassination could have been prevented if the Rawalpindi District Police had taken adequate security measures.

Turning to the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Commission found that police actions and omissions, including the hosing down of the crime scene and failure to collect and preserve evidence, inflicted irreparable damage to the investigation.

It also found that (the then) City Police Officer Saud Aziz "impeded" investigators from conducting on-site investigations until two full days after the assassination and that the Government's assertions that Baitullah Mehsud and Al-Qaida were responsible were made well before any proper investigation had started, pre-empting, prejudicing and hindering the subsequent investigation.

"Ms. Bhutto faced serious threats in Pakistan from a number of sources," the Commission said. "These included Al-Qaida, the Taliban and local jihadi groups, and potentially from elements in the Pakistani establishment. Notwithstanding these threats, the investigation into her assassination focused on pursuing lower-level operatives allegedly linked to Baitullah Mehsud."

The UN report stressed that investigators dismissed the possibility of involvement by elements of the Pakistani establishment, including the three persons identified by Benazir as threats to her in her 16 October 2007 letter to Gen. (Retd) Musharraf. It also noted that investigations were "severely hampered" by intelligence agencies and other government officials, which impeded an "unfettered search for the truth."

"The Commission believes that the failures of the police and other officials to react effectively to Ms. Bhutto's assassination were, in most cases, deliberate," it declared. The three-member panel, which was headed by Chilean Ambassador to the UN Heraldo Muñoz and included Marzuki Darusman, former attorney-general of Indonesia, and Peter Fitzgerald, a veteran official of the Irish National Police, urged the Government to undertake police reform in view of its "deeply flawed performance and conduct."

It also recommended the establishment of a fully independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate political killings, disappearances and terrorism in Pakistan in recent years in view of the backdrop of a history of political violence carried out with impunity.

The Commission conducted more than 250 interviews with Pakistanis and others both inside and outside Pakistan, reviewed hundreds of documents, videos, photographs and other documentary material provided by federal and provincial authorities in Pakistan and others.

In the report, the Commission said it was "by the efforts of certain high-ranking Pakistani government authorities to obstruct access to military and intelligence sources" but during an extension of its mandate until March 31 it was able eventually to meet with some past and present members of the Pakistani military and intelligence services.

The charismatic ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto was killed moments after she addressed an election meeting in the historic Liaqat Bagh Park in Rawalpindi city near Islamabad on December 27, 2007. In the same park, Liaqat Ali Khan, who also served as Pakistan's prime minister, was assassinated on October 16, 1951.

The terms of reference for the UN commission includes to inquire into the facts and circumstances of the assassination, but a UN official in Islamabad made it clear at the start of the probe that it will be up to Islamabad to determine "the criminal responsibility of the perpetrators."

It appears through several video clips that Benazir was killed in a gun-and-suicide-attack. The government at that time pinned the blame on militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, a tribal warlord heading the country's deadliest militant outfit Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The accused was killed in a US CIA-operated drone attack in South Waziristan, birthplace of the Pakistani Taliban, in August last year.

Earlier on October 18, 2007, in Karachi, she survived a deadly attack – a grenade followed by a suicide blast – in which some 138 party workers and her supporters were killed. In the immediate aftermath of the attempt on her life, Benazir wrote a letter to the then president Gen. (Retd) Pervez Musharraf naming four persons whom she suspected of "engineering" the attacks. They included senior military officials and politicians in his regime.

She chose to name the then chief minister of Punjab, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, ex-chief of powerful army-run Inter-Services Intelligence, Lieutenant-General (Retd) Hamid Gul, and former director-general of Intelligence Bureau, Ijaz Shah, who was seen as "very close" to Musharraf. All the three accused have denied their involvement in life attempt on her.

Benazir's return to the country followed a "reconciliation" between her and ex-military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf arranged with the active participation of the United States and Great Britain. This reconciliation is often considered as a part of a deal to keep the United States' "closest ally" Musharraf in power in Pakistan for his role in the war against al-Qaeda and Taliban.

"The deal was that Benazir will be the prime minister and Musharraf the president. Both Washington and London helped make this arrangement for their own national security interests in Pakistan as America and Britain believed they cannot find more trustworthy partner than Musharraf to carry on the war on terror," a senior Pakistan People's Party leader said wishing not to be named.

A popular political leader's presence in the country and her support to the war on terror was necessitated following the Musharraf regime's falling approval rating. The military's vulnerability was increasing in the absence of political ownership of the war on terror as pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (Q) was failing in winning the public's support for the war.

Present army chief and then Inter-Services Intelligence DG Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and former key adviser of Musharraf Tariq Aziz negotiated what was later known as 'National Reconciliation Order (NRO)' with Benazir paving the way for her return and leading to withdrawal of criminal and corruption cases against her and 8,000 other politicians and bureaucrats. The Supreme Court struck down the NRO ordering reopening of all closed cases against all the accused, including her husband, the current President Asif Ali Zardari.

Benazir quickly realized upon her return to the country that public mood is completely against any deal with Musharraf and sitting with him will drive away public support for her Pakistan People's Party in the forthcoming general elections. Meanwhile, Musharraf was coming under pressure from the lawyer movement seeking the reinstatement of sacked judge Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The military ruler imposed emergency on 3 December 2007 to quell the movement.

The second emergency provided Benazir with a "golden opportunity" to move away from Musharraf and come out openly against the emergency and detention of over 50 senior judges, taking a popular political line by demanding the immediate release of these judges and the return of the country to constitutional rule.

Such a political line by her actually buried the deal with Musharraf and the two leaders were on warpath and since both Benazir and Musharraf decided they cannot work together. The fast-changing situation alarmed the American and British power brokers also and their game plans looked set to fail. They attempted to mend the relations between Benazir and Musharraf but she looked convinced that working with the military dictator would cause irreparable damage to her political life.

Riyadh, backer of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, also pushed the return of centre-right political leader to get strong political influence going. With the two strongest political leaders back in the country, it increased pressure on Musharraf and he was seen increasingly "politically isolated." Nawaz and Benazir were two staunch political rivals until 1999 when Musharraf overthrew Nawaz in a bloodless coup. However, exiled life brought the two leaders together and they signed the historic 'Charter of Democracy' document in London in 2006 to put Pakistan on democratic lines.

Since its independence from British colonial rule in 1947, Pakistan has lived more under military rule than democracy. The irony is the "democratic world" often backed such undemocratic governments for their national security interests in Pakistan. India has displayed the tendency of preferring military rule under the impression that relations between New Delhi and Islamabad "improve". The two leaders showed maturity and political observers hailed their understanding to strengthen democracy often derailed by military coups. 

There is a long list of political assassinations in Pakistan. The country's first prime minister, Liaqat Ali Khan, was gunned down on October 16, 1951, in same place where Benazir was assassinated. Dr Khan Sahib, chief minister of West Pakistan, was shot dead in 1958; politician Chaudhry Zahoor Elahi was killed in September 1981 and al-Murtaza group claimed responsibility; Pukhtoon nationalist leader Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai was blown in a bomb blast in September 1973, the North West Frontier Province governor Hayat Muhammad Khan Sherpao was killed in a bomb explosion in 1975 in Peshawar, former Frontier governor Arbab Sikander Khan was killed in 1981; former Frontier governor and retired three-star army general Fazle Haq was sprayed with bullets in 1991 and Shia community leader Allama Arif Hussain al-Hussain was killed in August 1988 and military ruler Ziaul Haq was killed in a fatal air crash in 1988. With scarce answers to any of these deaths, can we hope expect anything different for Benazir? Iqbal Khattak is a Contributing Editor to Himal Southasian Magazine and the Bureau Chief of Daily Times based in Peshawar. The UN Report on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto can be downloaded here.

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