May issue 2011

By | News & Politics | Published 13 years ago


For every political murder in Pakistan, there are myriad conspiracy theories about the perpetrators and their motives. Newsline takes a look at some of the more prominent assassinations — and some of the most outlandish conspiracies they spawned.

Liaquat Ali Khan

The facts: Pakistan’s first Prime Minister was killed on October 16, 1951 by Saad Akbar Babrak, who immediately thereafter, was shot dead by the police. To this day it is not known why Babrak would have wanted to assassinate Liaquat.

The theories: Since the killer himself could not be questioned, a trove of conspiracy theories have taken hold that purport to explain who was actually behind Liaquat’s assassination. One of the most popular holds that Babrak was hired by the US to kill Liaquat because the Prime Minister refused to help the Americans get contracts for oil fields in Iran. Alternately, it has also been proposed that the Soviet Union was behind the murder because Liaquat allied Pakistan very strongly with the US.

There are also some who claim that Babrak was a Pashtun nationalist who hoped that killing Liaquat would lead to an independent Pakhtun state. A popular conspiracy holds that a conglomerate of feudal elites was behind the murder because Liaquat was about to announce the abolition of feudalism. The government, or at least the establishment, has also been accused by some since a police officer carrying papers relating to the inquiry into the assassination was himself killed in an unexplained plane crash. Just about everyone has been accused of killing Liaquat Ali Khan, including the Communists and those who were arrested as part of an attempted coup against the Prime Minister in March 1951.

Shahnawaz Bhutto

The facts: At the age of only 27, Shahnawaz Bhutto, was found dead in his home in Nice, France on July 18, 1985. His wife, Rehana, was considered a suspect and detained by local authorities but never brought to trial.

The theories: Shahnawaz was active with his brother Murtaza in opposition to the rule of Zia-ul-Haq and so the Bhutto family maintained that he was poisoned by the dictator. In Pakistan meanwhile, Zia propagated the theory that Shahnawaz had died of a drug overdose. In her book Songs of Blood and Sword, Murtaza’s daughter, Fatima Bhutto, floated a new theory. She quoted a lawyer as saying that Benazir was seemingly uninterested in solving the mystery behind Shahnawaz’s death and juxtaposed that with a supposed rapprochement Benazir was pursuing with Zia. The implications of that were not fully explained but the hint came through loud and clear. By far the most popular theory, however, is that Rehana was responsible for Shahnawaz’s death either by poisoning him herself or not coming to his aid as he lay dying.


The facts: The only thing we know for sure about Zia-ul-Haq’s death was that he was killed in a plane crash on August 17, 1988 along with 31 others including the US Ambassador Arnold Raphael. No one seemed particularly concerned about enquiring too deeply into the causes of the crash. An investigation in Pakistan concluded that it was most likely that the plane was sabotaged and poisonous gases released, but no attempt was made to find out who was behind it.

The theories: There are so many people who would want Zia-ul-Haq dead that just about anyone could be responsible. And in his novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, author Mohammed Hanif posits that just about everyone did plan to kill him. It could have been Israel, which was concerned about Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions. The Soviet Union might have been responsible after Zia’s support for US-backed rebels thwarted its ambitions in Afghanistan. Even the US itself might have been involved, since it no longer needed the dictator. Closer to home, perhaps the army decided Zia needed to be replaced, or any local group disgusted with him might have decided to take action. Or it could have just been a mechanical failure. Given the incuriosity of those who should have investigated the case, we will never know.

Murtaza Bhutto

The facts: We actually know who killed Murtaza Bhutto – it was the police near his residence. We just don’t know who ordered the killing. On the night of September 20, 1996, Murtaza and some of his party activists were shot dead by the police near his residence at 70 Clifton. At the time, Murtaza’s sister Benazir, with whom he had had a bitter falling out, was in power at the centre.

The theories: The Sindh government blamed Murtaza himself for his killing. It claimed that Murtaza’s men started firing when they were stopped by the police, leading to a shoot-out. After a 13-year trial, all the accused policemen were acquitted of the murder. One theory, held by Murtaza’s daughter Fatima among many others, is that Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Zardari, enraged that Murtaza was daring to challenge their rule, had him killed. Given that soon after the murder, President Farooq Leghari dismissed Benazir’s government, another popular theory held that it was the intelligence agencies and establishment that ordered the hit to discredit the Benazir government and ensure its removal.

Benazir Bhutto

The facts: Only the bare minimum of facts are not in dispute when it comes to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Benazir was on her way to an election campaign event in Liaquat Bagh on December 27, 2007, when she stood up through the sun roof of her vehicle to address and wave to the crowd. She was fired at by a gunman and explosions were heard at the same time. She was pronounced dead when she arrived at the hospital in Rawalpindi.

The theories: Just about everything else surrounding Benazir Bhutto’s assassination is disputed. Doctors at the hospital to which Benazir was rushed claimed that she was killed by shrapnel wounds, but the government at first insisted that she had been killed when her head crashed into the sunroof lever — a claim that was vigorously disputed by the PPP. The government later released an audiotape of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mehsud that had him taking credit for the assassination. When Benazir’s widower Asif Ali Zardari came back to Pakistan, he called the ruling PML-Q the “Qatil League” implying that they were behind the murder. A UN investigation into the matter held President Pervez Musharraf culpable for not providing her enough security and a Pakistani court is seeking his extradition in this regard. Benazir herself wrote a letter to Musharraf before her return to Pakistan,saying that four men posed a threat to her life: Intelligence Bureau Chief Ijaz Shah, Punjab Governor Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, Sindh Governor Arbab Rahim and former ISI chief Hamid Gul. Drawing room chatter has also pinned the blame on Zardari, but that conspiracy theory is based on absolutely no evidence.

Hayat Mohammed Khan Sherpao

The facts: Hayat Sherpao was serving as the governor of NWFP when he was assassinated in a bomb blast at the University of Peshawar campus on February 8, 1975. Sherpao was a founding member of the PPP and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto pinned the blame on the National Awami Party (NAP). Dozens of NAP members, inlcuding Asfandyar Wali Khan, were put on trial and the party was banned. Ultimately, all the accused were acquitted by the Supreme Court.

The theories: Apart from the NAP, the only other plausible possibility was floated: that Bhutto himself might have been behind the murder. Since Sherpao was a long-standing member of the PPP, only post-facto rationalisations could be employed to explain why ZAB might want such a loyalist murdered. Among the theories was that Sherpao was planning to defect to the NAP or that he was planning a putsch against ZAB to get the leadership of the PPP himself. Alternately, there was also a belief that Bhutto needed a high-profile murder in order to sideline the NAP in NWFP. Some have even speculated that Sherpao was wooing Benazir, and Bhutto disapproved of this.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.