January Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

All assassinations have consequences, but few are as explosive as those that have followed the murder of Benazir Bhutto on the evening of December 27. The whole country has been rocked to its very foundation. The killing of 61 people in the subsequent riots and damage worth billions of rupees incurred to public and private property are just one measure of the consequences of Bhutto’s assassination. Worrisome questions about the country’s future dominate discussions in newspaper columns and drawing rooms alike.

Much of this mayhem was unavoidable, but still a lot could have been prevented by timely administrative action and, more importantly, by better handling of the immediate details of Ms Bhutto’s murder.

Neither happened. The police and the civil administration, in fact, the entire district government system, went into a state of self-imposed dysfunction. The decision-making machinery in Islamabad made a complete hash of arguably the most important aspect of the tragedy: information about how Benazir Bhutto was killed.

The official response, which kept coming up, and at critical moments defined public perceptions about the nature of her death, hovered between futile fudging and clumsy cover-ups, leaving swathes of misgivings about the truth of the matter.

No doubt it was a dreary and confusing time and rage and criminals stalked the land. But there was reasonably credible information available about the sequence of events. It went something like this. As Bhutto opened the iron-hood of her bullet-proof car to wave for the last time to her party die-hards, she exposed herself to the lurking assassin. He shot her through the head from a distance so close that one guard clinging to the rear of her car made vain attempts to jump onto him to prevent the crime from being committed. She got hit, perhaps in the back of her head — perhaps in the brain stem — and collapsed inside the car into the lap of Naheed Khan, her personal secretary. Seconds later, a blast ripped through the mass of people around and badly damaged the vehicle. Damaged but not broken, the vehicle trundled towards Islamabad at the shrieking directions of the inmates who feared the worst. Five kilometres into the journey, Benazir Bhutto’s companions, who also included Makhdoom Amin Fahim, realised that Islamabad was too far away and she needed immediate medical assistance. The staff at the Rawalpindi General Hospital confirmed that Benazir Bhutto was dead upon arrival; they confirmed that there were two bullet wounds in the neck and one (which was actually the exit wound) in the head. When the doctors were trying to revive her, there was not a single expert around the operation table who had any hope of saving her. They were working on a body that had gone cold long before they were called in.

A timely filtering out of these details could have helped the government hook up well with the shell-shocked leadership of the PPP. Instead, what followed was a perplexing array of the most incredulous explanations. The first salvo came from caretaker Interior Minister Lt. General (retd.) Hamid Nawaz Khan who stated with supreme confidence that Ms Bhutto had been killed in a suicide attack masterminded by terrorists and that the bullets fired at her had not hit her. Then, on the day of Ms Bhutto’s burial, Dr Mussadiq, the principal and professor of surgery at Rawalpindi Medical College, who led the team handling the slain premier’s body, held a press conference that shamed his noble profession. He denied that there were any bullet wounds on Ms Bhutto’s body and that the one wound that was there had been caused by some sharp object.

Then came the king in this string of cruel jokes. Brigadier (retd.) Javed Iqbal Cheema, spokesperson for the interior ministry and incharge of the National Crisis Management Cell, gave a most detailed description of what and who might have killed Ms Bhutto. He said it was Baitullah Mehsud from the Waziristan region who had planned and executed the killing through a suicide bomber, though she was actually killed by a small metallic lever on the side of the hood of her car that smashed her skull. Pictures of the blood-stained lever were made available to the media to support the assertion. In making this statement, Brig. Cheema was able to achieve the seemingly impossible task of proving that her death was at once caused by both terrorism and accident. He even played an audio tape in which a person was heard congratulating another for doing a great job. The former was supposed to be Baitullah Mehsud, the mastermind, while the latter was the supervisor of the attack.

The explanation was supposed to be a logical culmination of the incredible claims of Dr Mussadiq about a sharp object knocking off the former premier. But then the Toyota Motor Corporation threatened to sue the government for making false statements about their prime product, and videos of Ms Bhutto getting hit by the assassin’s bullets popped up on every domestic and international channel. When the camera gave the lie to official versions, the government ran for cover in the lousiest way imaginable. “Soldiers are not good at communication,” was all that the interior minister could say to senior members of the media in defence of his spokesman. The more tangible, but still inadequate damage-control exercise included the acceptance of the UK’s assistance in probing the murder.

The arrival of the Scotland Yard team in Pakistan, under much hype, has changed little. The PPP, whose members furiously rejected the initial official explanations, are still demanding a UN-mandated investigation, underlining the complete breakdown of trust in the government’s sincerity in identifying the real killers. At any rate, Scotland Yard are no magicians. They have to work with the given forensic evidence. Regrettably, very little of that survives in its original shape. The scene of the killing has been swept clean (accidentally or because of sheer incompetence is what the official explanation states); the medical record of Ms Bhutto’s murder has changed hands — it now lies with the government; her belongings have gone through the purgatory of official custody and eyewitnesses have been arranged by the police to describe the condition of her security, who have testified to the “best possible arrangements that were made to protect her.” How efficacious and penetrating Scotland Yard’s findings are going to be under such circumstances, is self-evident.

But even if the UK’s super detectives are able to sift the grain of truth from the chaff of contradictory claims, the inquiry would not bring down political tempers. The perception among the PPP cadres is that the government wants to dodge their demand: the truth of Ms Bhutto’s murder be told with a straight tongue. Numerous party leaders have, out of hand, rejected statements by President General (retd.) Musharraf that Baitullah Mehsud is behind the killing. They believe that typically the government is playing the extremist card to muddle the picture and to muster more international support and money for the counter-terrorism effort.

Adding to their grief and anger are statements from their political opponents, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, that perhaps Ms Bhutto’s husband, and now the PPP’s co-chairperson, Asif Ali Zardari has a hand in the killing. What they find equally appalling is Musharraf’s version: had she not come out of the vehicle, she would have still been alive.

Ms Bhutto’s assassination has bitterly, and perhaps permanently, divided the national scene. The small window of opportunity that the government had to win over the broken hearts of the Peoples Party, by truthfully reconstructing the sequence of events, is now tightly closed. And, perhaps, so is the door to political peace.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.