April issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 10 years ago

This is a book about a grim and tragic subject, but it is not a heavy, burdensome read. It is written with an elegance and grace that makes for smooth, engaging reading. The author, Heraldo Munoz, headed the UN Commission of Inquiry formed at the request of the Pakistan Government to investigate the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. He is the UN Assistant Secretary- General in-charge of Latin America and the Caribbean for the UN Development Programme, and the former Ambassador of Chile to the UN. He has previously written two other books, titled A Solitary Warand the award-winning The Dictator’s Shadow.

Here is an individual narrative compiled by one who was assigned a special and exclusive responsibility. This gave him access to a wide range of sources and experiences to which other writers would not have had convenient access. While there are references to findings of the UN Commission, the book is not a reproduction or even a summary of the official report by the Commission. The author views the subject and its context from his own personal perspective rather than be restricted to a rigid, formal approach. At the same time, he draws upon information gained by the Commission. On grounds referred to in this review, both the circumstances before and after the murder, and the book itself to an extent, are regrettably marked by muddled lapses.

Six broad areas are covered. Four comprise: a brief history of Pakistan by way of background, including the role of Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, from 1958 to 1979; the US role in the country’s internal affairs and external relations; the public life of Benazir Bhutto herself, in and out of office; Pakistan’s politics and the relationship between civil and military institutions. Then there are findings and observations arising from the investigation by the Commission into the assassination. These lead to about 25 major factual revelations. Some of these may already be well-known. But they do startle, and sometimes shock the reader.

The author’s observations about such bizarre facts are precise, sharply focused on hard evidence, or the lack of it; blunt and bold, single-minded and straightforward. The combined effect of these elements is to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that there were appalling failures by almost every relevant entity charged with the responsibility to provide effective security to one of the most important and vulnerable personalities of Pakistan. The responsible entities include the PPP’s own leadership and internal arrangements for their leader’s security; the Rawalpindi Police;  the civil and military intelligence agencies; the Government of Punjab, and the federal government of the time and the succeeding PPP government as well, and even one or more foreign governments.

Specific instances prove this thesis. Page 77: Soon after its arrival in Islamabad on 16th July 2009, the Commission met Interior Minister Rehman Malik for the first time. The author was presented with a document titled: ‘Summary of Investigation and Trial Conducted So Far for UN Fact-finding Commission’ which the Minister described as being “…very complete. This is your own report ready to be issued, of course, with the changes and additions that you may see fit!” The Commission was being told even before it had commenced its inquiry that there was really little or nothing more to do. “It was a sign of things to come,” ruefully concluded the author. But the Commission was not deterred.

Page 129: Despite a promise made by the British Foreign Office to convey the exact measures taken (in advance of her homeward journey) by the UK Government to ensure Benazir’s safe return to Pakistan, no answer was received by the Commission, despite repeated reminders. Page 133: Less than 18 hours before her death, during a meeting held at 1:30 a.m. on 27th December 2007 at her residence in Islamabad, the ISI chief personally conveyed to Benazir information from the intelligence agencies of Saudi Arabia and UAE, endorsed by the ISI, that plans to target her included deploying one or more young men without beards to enable them to become anonymous parts of a crowd. She obviously ignored these dire warnings. President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who happened to be on an official visit to Islamabad and on whom Benazir had called just a few hours before her end, was later recorded as saying that she was “too courageous for her own good.”

Pages 136-7: Close to, and at, the fateful public meeting in Liaquat Bagh, the author condemns the complete failure of the Police Elite Force to implement the “box” security plan. He points out that, starting at 3.16 pm, even before entering the venue of the public meeting, Benazir decided to expose her head and shoulders through the open roof-hatch of the Land Cruiser by remaining standing in the vehicle for as long as 20 minutes. So her decision to stand up through the open hatch after the public meeting on her way out was not a sudden, impulsive move,  but simply the repetition of a high-risk action that she took, without being prevented from doing so by her own security team.

Page 139: The author stresses that: “…strangely for a back-up vehicle, the black bullet-proof Mercedez-Benz (bearing Rehman Malik, Babar Awan, Farhatullah Babar and Tauqir Zia) was the first to leave the parking area,” instead of remaining behind Benazir’s Land Cruiser, as it was particularly meant to do. The Commission was told that the “Mercedez Benz left Liaquat Bagh so quickly that it was nowhere to be seen when the blast occurred… the Commission did not see this vehicle in the video images of the exit area it reviewed… although this was the alternative vehicle in case of any emergency, the Mercedez travelled all the way to Zardari House, a drive of 20-30 minutes…”

Page 140: Inside Benazir’s own vehicle, her security officer, Major (R) Imtiaz, sitting in the front seat, “…wanted to call City Police Officer Saud Aziz by cell-phone, (presumably about lack of crowd control), but he did not have the police chief’s direct number! Instead he called Saud Aziz’s operator and the operator at the police station in Multan, where Major(R) Imtiaz had recently served… to get the phone number for a police officer based in Rawalpindi!

Page 141: Vehicles of senior police officers were thoughtlessly parked in the left lane of the exit route from Liaquat Bagh thus preventing the use of the emergency route.

Page 140: There was no sign of effective police management of the crowd before Benazir’s entry into Liaquat Bagh and during her exit from the venue. This became even less so after the bomb blast.

Pages 142-43: In the one-and-a-half seconds, during which a gunman fired three shots at her — even after the second shot, and a visible movement of Benazir’s dupatta (never found later) and head — no definite link was established between these gunshots, her disappearance downwards into the vehicle and her injuries. Indeed, as stated on page 150: “…The Commission also interviewed some PPP supporters who had been injured in the blast. None had received bullet wounds… the Commission was not provided with any credible, new information showing that Benazir had received bullet wounds…” About this aspect, the author points out that Sherry Rehman retracted her earlier public statement to the Commission asserting Benazir’s gunshot injuries. She informed the Commission that she had not seen Benazir’s head wound and had been advised to tell the media that she had seen bullet wounds. While stressing that the gunshot story is misleading, the author does not share with the reader, details, if any were provided, as to who advised Sherry Rehman to say what to the media. And why.

Page 144: As Benazir’s vehicle, after the blast, moved on flattened tyres towards a hospital, only one police vehicle was ahead of her own. No other police vehicles were visible. No ambulance had been arranged in advance by either the police or the PPP team for use in an emergency situation. After the Land Cruiser stalled, Sherry Rehman’s vehicle came up, the slain leader’s body was transferred to it, and it took 34 minutes between the blast and the arrival at the hospital. Meanwhile, almost in a tragi-comic way, the Mercedez speeding away to Islamabad, stopped en route to ask a policeman about further information. After hearing on the police radio that their leader had been injured and possibly taken to hospital, the car continued on to Zardari House. The author speculates that “…perhaps the passengers were worried that a second bomb might go off, as had happened in other terrorist attacks.”

Pages 146-150: The unforgivable, inexplicable, illegal omission by the police in failing to request or allow the hospital authorities to conduct an autopsy, as enjoined by the law, has deprived us from knowing the exact cause of death. If it was not the three bullets fired by the assassin, was it the blast that the suicide bomber unleashed immediately after firing ? Or was it the lever on the open hatch? Or was it a so-far-undetected far-placed sniper’s special bullet? Despite the doctors’ repeated requests, neither the City Police Chief nor the District Co-ordination Officer nor, eventually, Asif Ali Zardari permitted the legally obligatory post-mortem examination.

KARACHI OCT 31 (APP) Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto addressing a press confrence at Bilawal House in Karachi. APP PHOTO BY JAHANGIR KHAN

Pages 153-185: In the chapter titled ‘Whodunit?’ the author identifies several intriguing dimensions, exposes remarkable aspects to the post-incident actions of both the provincial and federal authorities, reflects briefly on possibilities and probabilities and inevitably is unable to offer a conclusive answer to the question posed in the chapter’s title. But the text contains numerous puzzles and surprises. Page 156: “The investigators were not able to conduct on-site investigations until two full days after the assassination.”  Due to delaying tactics, and only after the crime scene had been hosed down. Page 157: “The crime scene was not immediately sealed… as should have been done.” Nevertheless, despite the CPO ordering the hosing within one hour and 40 minutes of the blast, police were able to collect 23 pieces of evidence, instead of the normal count in such cases which is hundreds or thousands. The reason given for the quick hosing down was “public order,” even though there was no sign of such disorder at that time. Page 158: “The CPO did not act independently about the hosing action…” Page 159: The Committee constituted by the Government of Punjab to investigate reasons and responsibility for the hosing down completed its work in a single day and found no one culpable!  The Land Cruiser was moved first to the police station, then to Police Lines. “People were cleaning the Land Cruiser, even though investigations were still on-going…”

Such weird actions compel the author to state on page 161: “…it is my belief that the police deliberately botched the investigation…”

Page 162: Scotland Yard and a Dutch Institute validated the Pakistani pathologist’s view that the fatality was the result of an injury from striking the lip of the escape hatch, and not a gunshot injury. “It will be recalled that when this claim was first made by the spokesman of the Ministry of the Interior, the PPP, the media and many citizens derided the interpretation.

Page 164: The author notes that specialised observers told the Commission that, in their view, the Pakistani Taliban had not demonstrated the capacity to conduct such a major operation outside the tribal areas, at that time. But he does not go on to reflect on who else could recruit and motivate a 16-year-old boy to become a suicide bomber, as happened in this case. Remains gathered from the scene indicated that the assassin was a teenager.

Page 166: The US Government did not allow the UN Commission to meet with US Intelligence officials. Page 171: The report of the Pakistani Joint Investigation Team shared with the Commission clearly showed that some pages had been doctored/replaced.

Page 181: None of the officials named in Benazir’s letter to General Musharraf in October 2007 (as being, in her view, part of a plot to kill her) were ever interviewed/ interrogated by the police. Lt. General (R) Hamid Gul told a reporter he was surprised at not being interviewed. Page 183: “…the Commission found it discriminatory and inexcusable that the October 22, 2007 directive (for special security measures) for ex-Prime Ministers Shaukat Aziz and Shujaat Hussain did not include a similar clear instruction for Benazir Bhutto, particularly considering that she had been attacked in Karachi just four days prior to the issuance of the letter in question.”

Page 201: “The assassination plot was hatched in the formal residence of an army brigadier, according to the official investigation report.” But the author cites only a secondary, not a primary source for so serious a claim about an official report and about so alarming an allegation.

Which brings one to the unfortunate blemishes of the book. In contrast to the fact-based, directly-observed findings, observations and reflections, in the first four broad aspects, there are several errors of facts and incorrect assumptions; some crucial absences of citations for sources on the basis of which statements and judgements are made by the author, despite the book including Notes spread over 22 pages which list books, news media and other sources. There are also echoes of the conventional, predictable western narrative about Pakistan, particularly about the alleged role of the army, ISI and the Establishment.

Page 41: Z.A. Bhutto is given exclusive credit for engineering/re-engineering Pakistan-China relations, whereas President Ayub Khan took personal interest in overseeing the change. Page 44: India is said to have begun (repeat “begun”) training and equipping the Mukti Bahini in only the second half of 1971, whereas it is now proven that Indian preparations for covert operations inside East Pakistan and measures to cope with the fall-out, had begun in 1970, if not even earlier. Page 44: Z.A. Bhutto is credited with initiating the nuclear programme itself; whereas Pakistan’s peaceful nuclear projects commenced in the late 1950s. Z.A. Bhutto initiated the nuclear weapons programme in 1972. Page 45: Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims in 1973-74, not in 1977. Page 46: The riots and clashes related to the 1977 polls occurred in the aftermath of the elections, not in the ” run-up ” to them. Page 59: “…the army initially refused to allow Benazir to assume her duties as Prime Minister in 1988..”  is claimed, without citing any primary source.  Page 70: “…after President Tarrar’s dismissal (sic)  (resignation), General Musharraf added the role of COAS…” Whereas he was already COAS, and then became Supreme Commander, by virtue of also being the head of state.

Page 70: Though the context of the page  called for it, there is no reference made to the fact that in May 2000, a 12-member bench of the Supreme Court validated the military intervention of October 1999, granted Musharraf the power to amend the Constitution and gave him three years to rule. Page 102: Wrong dates about Benazir’s dismissal in 1990, followed by the lack of a source for the claim that Nawaz Sharif as prime minister removed DG, ISI Javed Nasir to comply with US advice.

However, notwithstanding the above, and some other similar lapses, this book is a timely, valuable, readable contribution to discourse on a significant subject, one that causes anguish as well as anger at the tragedy and at the apathy which has followed it. Heraldo Munoz concludes the book with a moving paragraph: “Finally, I thank the people of Pakistan, whom I learned to appreciate and admire during the interactions I had with them in Pakistan and abroad. Their country deserves the best.”

This review was originally published in Newsline’s April 2014 issue under the headline, “Murder, Mystery and a Cover Up.”