After an eight-month investigation by a United Nations-appointed commission into the assassination in December 2007 of Benazir Bhutto as she campaigned to return to the leadership of Pakistan, the world is no closer to knowing what forces– militant Islamists, official plotters or even personal enemies–were to blame for her death.
What is very clear, however, is that the explosion that rocked her vehicle on a crowded road in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of Pakistan’s military, leaving her slumped, dying, on the lap of one of her aides, was followed by spectacularly botched handling of the crime scene and crucial evidence by local and state police as well as national security and intelligence agencies, giving rise to widespread public assumptions that government operatives may have been among the culpable.
The commission’s report, moreover, reveals in ample detail the laxity and incompetence of those tasked with protecting Bhutto, who had been the target of an attack only two months earlier in Karachi. Neither official security, arranged by the government of President Pervez Musharraf, nor her own personal protection detail fielded by her Pakistan Peoples Party were up to the job of keeping Bhutto, a headstrong politician who loved a crowd, out of harm’s way.
The commission, headed by Heraldo Muñoz, Chile’s ambassador to the UN, working with Marzuki Darusman, a former attorney general of Indonesia, and Peter FitzGerald, ex-deputy commissioner of the Irish Police, was not conducting a criminal investigation. Its mandate was not to lay out charges or name culprits. Pakistan, which sought the commission, never wanted that kind of inquiry.
But the report does come down with some assurance against the initial accusation that Bhutto had been shot in the head before a teenaged suicide bomber exploded the charge that brought her down. The commission could not find credible evidence of a fatal gunshot, particularly since the police had refused a request for an autopsy by the attending physician. A blow to her head as she fell back in the car through the open sunroof was the official explanation, but there was never forensic proof.
Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, now Pakistan’s president, also rejected an autopsy and moved the body quickly to the Bhutto family base in Larkana, in the southern province of Sindh. There have been persistent rumors that he or others in her family or circle of political allies could have been behind the killing, accusations that the commission found no grounds for believing.
"The stubborn persistence of these hypotheses is attributable almost entirely to the abject failure of the government authorities at the time to carry out an investigation with vigor and integrity," the report concluded.
Within twenty-four hours, Pakistani police, who had hosed down the assassination site, destroying evidence, had decided that Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was behind Bhutto’s death, and announced as much, based on inconclusive evidence from an intercepted phone call. Mehsud was killed last year in an American air stike near Afghanistan.
Bhutto’s assassination was only the most recent on a South Asian political terrain littered with murdered politicians. Pakistan’s first president, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in 1951 in the same park that Bhutto was leaving on the evening of her death. Her father, the former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed after a murder trial that many Pakistanis assert was politically rigged. General Mohammed Zia ul Haq, a military president, died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988 that also killed the American ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel. Like many other tragedies in the region, the cause of the crash has never been its definitively determined.
In India, Mohandas Gandhi was murdered in 1948, soon after independence. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot down in 1984 and her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi–Benazir’s Bhutto’s contemporary and counterpart–was killed by Sri Lankan Tamil separatists in 1991. In Sri Lanka itself, a generation of politicians, Sinhala and Tamil, were killed, and in Bangladesh, the first prime minister (and later president), Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated In 1975. In 1981 another president, Ziaur Rahman, was killed in an abortive coup.
Bhutto knew well that political life was risky. But after twice being deposed from the prime ministership on corruption charges (which she denied, though not convincingly), she was back after nine years in exile to reclaim her place. The UN commission’s report called government security arrangements for her "fatally insufficient and ineffective." Both police and intelligence agencies were culpable, at the very least, of negligence–deliberate or not.
A few days after the release of the UN report, President Zardari–an unpopluar leader who, it must be said, has a lot to gain by tarring the previous administration–removed seven police officers and a former interior ministry spokesman from their jobs and barred them from leaving the country. It was a start, but only a start, at reopening the case.
"The assassination of Benazir Bhutto occurred against the backdrop of a history of political violence that was carried out with impunity," the commission report says, adding that it is difficult to overstate the shock Pakistanis endured, and the political loss many felt. Bhutto’s life is owed a serious investigation of her death.