Murder mystery Bhutto’s murderer(s) still at large

Zofeen Ebrahim

The chapter is closed, and the Pakistan People’s Party [PPP] is dead. It doesn’t matter who killed her,” said Mohammad Sharif, a young driver working for a voluntary agency, referring to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on Dec. 27 last year. A year ago, Sharif was among the crowd of emotionally charged Bhutto fans that had gathered at Garhi Khuda Buksh (GKB), the ancestral home of the Bhuttos. She lies buried there alongside her father, former premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, hanged in 1979 on charges of murder. Her brothers, Murtaza and Shahnawaz, both of whom died mysteriously, are also interred there.

“That was a year ago, much has changed since then,” said Sharif. “Like so many, I too was shocked and grieving. But I’ve come to terms with it,” said Sharif. This year, as the Pakistan government officially observes the first anniversary of Benazir’s death on Dec. 27, with a public holiday, a sombre mood prevails as people throng to the mausoleum at GKB despite reports of possible suicide attacks. Manthar Khaskheli, a PPP worker from Thatta, a coastal town in Sindh, lamented that “the vacuum remains unfilled”. Many are disappointed that Pakistan’s present leadership, starting with President Asif Ali Zardari and Bhutto’s widower, seems uninterested in solving the mystery behind her assassination. Adbul Ghani Rahimom, another PPP worker, on his way to GKB, feels cheated. “It is our right to know who killed Benazir ,” said Mehmood Bhambhro, a paramedic from Thatta.

Bhutto was killed after being attacked with gunfire and a bomb while electioneering in the cantonment city of Rawalpindi. Her PPP apparently benefited from a sympathy wave that swept Zardari to power. Her assassination shocked the world, especially because that was the second of two attempts on her life in as many months. As she returned to Pakistan on Oct. 18, after nine years in exile, her motorcade was hit by two bombs that left more than 130 people, most of them PPP workers, dead. As with other famous assassinations in Pakistan, all that happened was the spawning of conspiracy theories that led nowhere, though the one usual suspect has always been Pakistan’s shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

When the military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq — who ordered the hanging of the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto — met his end after the military aircraft carrying him, several top army generals and the US ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Lewis Raphel, in August 1988, it generated many conspiracies but no answers. Bhutto had herself said that the al-Qaeda wanted her out of the way and the then president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, laid the blame on Baitullah Mehsud, a leader of the Taliban in Pakistan with suspected links to al-Qaeda. Musharraf also speculated that she may have died as a result of head injuries sustained when she hit a lever on the sunroof of her car through which she had emerged to wave at the crowds.

Former chief minister of Sindh and chairman of the Sindh National Front, Mumtaz Bhutto (a cousin), termed the death anniversary commemoration a “siyasi dangal” (political wrestling match) and suggested that the forces behind Benazir’s assassination were the same ones that had her brother Murtaza murdered. The oblique reference was to Zardari. Although Pakistan is normally wary of outside interference in its affairs, Zardari, in a bid to quieten allegations, has asked for a United Nations commission of inquiry into the Bhutto assassinatio

. Last Friday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a positive response to Pakistan’s request for an inquiry to identify “the culprits, perpetrators, organisers and financiers’” behind the murder.

In a special investigative documentary film, a private TV channel concluded that investigations would be incomplete without questioning Musharraf. However, many speculate that the present government’s hands are tied as it has given assurance to a friendly country (Saudi Arabia) that no action will be taken against Musharraf. That may stymie any UN investigation.

A recent poll conducted by International Republican Institute said the people of Pakistan thought that their country was headed for disaster. Zardari’s approval rating is down to 19 per cent since he took oath three months ago. To be fair, the Zardari government is caught up in a web of serious crises that seems to threaten its very existence. Recently, former premier Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which is currently in alliance with the PPP, said in an interview to a private channel: “The country is beginning to present the look of a failed state.” Hassan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based defence analyst, said, “The President faces a host of serious problems in the domestic context which appear to divert attention from inquiry into the assassination.” He agreed, however, that there was nothing to suggest that the “present government is serious about uncovering the mystery of Benazir’s assassination”.