January Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

Clear answers about the assassination of Benazir Bhutto still seem distant. Every day seemingly brings a new version of the story without any fundamental change in the evidence. Meanwhile, the federal government has lost all credibility with the public. Besides being immediately accused of providing inadequate security to the former prime minister, the government has invited criticism by the initial sloppiness of its investigation, frequently changing its version of events and putting forth an initial explanation that the country, and the world, felt stunk of a cover-up.

Brigadier (retd.) Javed Iqbal Cheema, a spokesman for the interior ministry, invited the public’s ire when he confidently and conveniently placed the blame for Bhutto’s murder on the local Taliban on the basis of some “credible evidence, including a recorded conversation and video footage.” During a press conference on the day of Bhutto’s funeral, Brigadier Cheema said: “We have tapped a telephonic conversation of an Al-Qaeda leader in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, with a maulana in which they congratulated each other on the killing of Ms Bhutto.” The transcript of the telephonic conversation between Baitullah Mehsud and his associate, made available in both Urdu and Pashto, however, never mentions details of the operation, nor does it mention Bhutto by name. The interior ministry only inferred that the two were congratulating each other over the successful assassination of Bhutto.

Many believe Baitullah Mehsud is an easy scapegoat. It was widely reported that prior to her return to Pakistan in October, the former two-time prime minister was on an Al-Qaeda hit-list and that Baitullah Mehsud, specifically, had said that he would target Bhutto if she returned. Despite denials by the Waziristan-based Al-Qaeda-linked leader, Islamabad blamed him for the twin blasts on October 18 in Karachi. They were doing the same again.

Further, Brigadier Cheema, generally cautious and guarded with his remarks, claimed that Bhutto, while being attacked by militants, actually died from a fluke injury. The official line said that there were gunshots and a bomb blast, but neither directly killed Bhutto. The gunshots missed and the blast was only effective because the force of the explosion blew Bhutto’s head sideways into a lever on the inside of the open sunroof. The government’s bold account of the killing and the timely communications intercept just a day after the murder did not go down well with the nation.

Bhutto’s return to Pakistan in the face of death threats earned her accolades from people across the globe, with the term “courageous” being bandied about. Of course, Bhutto’s detractors turned this courage into irresponsibility. The official account blames Bhutto for using the sunroof to stand up and wave to the jubilant crowd, thus becoming an easy target in the process. Musharraf echoed the same sentiments, saying, “Who is to be blamed for her coming out of her vehicle?”

As a fog of confusion and doubt swirled across the country, people hoped doctors at Rawalpindi General Hospital would provide some clarity. But instead of clarity, things became murkier. The medical report from the evening of December 27 was not as conclusive as people hoped — mostly because it was not the only one: more than one medical report with conflicting versions of the medical examination surfaced.

The first medical report issued by a panel of doctors, headed by Dr Mussadiq Khan, the principal of the Rawalpindi Medical College, had confirmed that Bhutto had sustained an injury on her neck. Yet, the interior ministry spokesman provided another medical report that said Bhutto had a wound measuring five by three centimetres above the pinna of her right ear and that there was a big, boggy swelling around the wound. The report prepared by the seven-member team led by Dr Mussadiq speaks of an open wound on Bhutto’s left temporal region from which “brain matter was exuding,” but does not establish the real cause of the trauma, i.e. a bullet or shrapnel. This is a fundamental lapse, the absence of which could have averted the need for exhumation of the body for a postmortem, according to a senior surgeon specialising in skull injuries. The lack of an immediate autopsy has proved to have debilitated the entire investigation.

And apparently the government has blamed Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari for disallowing the postmortem of the slain politician’s body. Nonetheless, an expert examination of the wound would have provided more details. In their defence, a doctor on duty has reportedly claimed to investigators that in the chaos of the moment he and his team did not have enough time to examine Bhutto’s wounds closely. One doctor has allegedly admitted that the team on duty assumed an autopsy was going to be performed and, as such, their focus was on reviving Bhutto, not analysing the cause of death.

But within just two days of that now famous press conference presided over by Brigadier Cheema, better video footage emerged showing that Bhutto collapsed into her bullet-proof car before the bomb blast went off. In a video first aired by Britain’s Channel 4 News, a man is seen standing right next to Bhutto’s vehicle. He fires at Bhutto, the dupatta on her head flies upwards and her head swings to the side before the subsequent explosion shakes and blanks out the camera. The government’s version looked more dubious than ever, if not downright wrong. The next day officials started to backtrack. The local and international media talk of a cover-up started to look more plausible.

The video footage also seemed to show that there were not a significant number of police personnel around the PPP chairperson’s vehicle. According to Bhutto’s security advisor, Rehman Malik, senior police officials had told him that the many police personnel had been shifted to a PML-N rally elsewhere in the city after a shooting incident claimed the lives of five of its workers earlier in the day. In fact, the security was much weaker than that which she received for her October 18 homecoming. Over a half-dozen police mobiles accompanied Bhutto after she boarded her armoured bus in Karachi. Even a ring comprising hundreds if not thousands of jiyalas around the vehicle protected Bhutto in October. Jammer-equipped jeeps were also made available two months back, though according to the PPP’s Dr Zulfiqar Mirza in an interview with Newsline in October, “The jammers were not working, were switched off or had some other problem.” In Rawalpindi, there were no jamming devices.

About a week prior to her death, Bhutto had informed her friend Mark Siegel via email that she would hold President Musharraf responsible if she was assassinated. Bhutto had contended that she was “made to feel insecure by his [Musharraf’s] minions and there is no way what is happening in terms of stopping me from taking private cars or using tinted windows or giving jammers or four police mobiles to cover all sides could happen without him.”

The combination of lax security and dubious investigation techniques has caused many across the country to second that emotion. And when television stations showed the Punjab government washing up the crime scene using fire brigade engines immediately after the attack, the doubts about an honest investigation at the hands of a caretaker government partial to the PML-Q were only heightened. Compare that to the crime site of the three blasts on Musharraf’s life near Ammar Chowk, which remained cordoned off for collecting evidence. But in this case, the interior ministry had a convenient answer: the road was hosed after collecting all the necessary evidence.

In an environment of distrust, the PPP has been able to speculate about the drama that claimed the life of their leader. Senator Latif Khosa has been theorising that one or more snipers perched on the rooftops of adjoining buildings in the suburbs of Liaquat Bagh could have gunned down Bhutto, while his colleague Senator Babar Awan raised the possibility of a sci-fi-style laser gun being used in the assassination. But Brigadier Cheema strongly rejected all theories of a targeted killing via sniper fire and international experts have stated that laser guns are only in their experimental stage and are years away from being effective as deadly weapons.

Still, in the face of mounting criticism at home and pressure from abroad, President Musharraf finally gave the okay for international assistance into the murder investigation of Bhutto, and detectives from Scotland Yard arrived on January 4. The five-member team has inspected the washed-up crime scene, interviewed police and injured party workers and examined the evidence from the blast site, including photographs, news clippings and television footage. A source within the Pakistan interior ministry says the world’s best forensic laboratories and other crime investigation technology would be optimally used. But the interior ministry source could not provide any details as to who had ordered the wash-up of the crime scene hours after the incident. Though a judicial commission has been set up to look into the matter, its findings will not help recreate the crime scene and restore lost evidence.

The chemical examination report of the vehicle and other material collected at the site along with DNA tests may make headway into the investigation. However, the Pakistani pool of DNA samples is not only limited but also lacks credibility, given the insufficient resources and unskilled manpower assigned to the task. Pakistan’s first forensic laboratory was just set up with American funding a couple of years ago.

A retired senior intelligence official believes that the probe would receive credible guidance with the execution of a postmortem report. But at the time Newsline was going to press, new PPP co-chairperson, Zardari, was still prohibiting the exhumation of his wife’s body for such purposes. Like many other experts, the ex-intelligence officer, too, refuses to believe in the veracity of the tapped telephone conversation between Baitullah Mehsud and his accomplice. Elsewhere, anonymous sources have confirmed to Newsline that some mobile phones with active SIM cards have been found at the blast site. These could also help the probe.

The terms of the British team have not been made public, yet sources confirm that it would work independently to prepare a report. Pakistan interior ministry sources suggest that the British team can interview anyone they desire. A senior official privy to the probe told Newsline via telephone that the British team may complete the probe in four to five weeks. In fact, caretaker Interior Minister Lieutenant-General (retd.) Hamid Nawaz has requested Scotland Yard to complete the investigation before the elections on February 18, although the ministry has not gone as far as to actually set a deadline.

But one thing about the Scotland Yard probe remains contentious. It has been reported that the foreign detectives have been assigned the task of determining how Benazir Bhutto was killed and have not been given the scope to investigate who killed her. In a way, it is tantamount to the government saying, ‘We do not want you to help deliver justice.’ So much for national reconciliation.