Who Killed Benazir?
19/9/09; Bruce Loudon, senior editor at The Australian, was formerly the newspaper’s South Asia correspondent
Lumped against Naheed Khan on the seat of the white, armour-plated Toyota Landcruiser, blood gushing from a massive wound to her temple, is one of the world’s most celebrated political leaders. Seconds before, Benazir Bhutto had been standing with her head and shoulders through the vehicle’s sunroof, shouting slogans in her campaign to become Pakistan’s prime minister for a third time: “Jiaye Bhutto, Jiaye Bhutto” (“Long live Bhutto, Long live Bhutto”), the rallying cry of her Pakistan People Party (PPP) and the last words she would ever utter. The devoted Naheed, Bhutto’s political secretary and her inseparable shadow for 23 years, is mopping the wound, frantically using her dupatta headscarf in a futile attempt to staunch the flow of blood and brain matter.
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“Bibi, Bibi, Bibi,” she murmurs, using a term of endearment for Bhutto in an effort to get some response. But there is none. This extraordinary woman – the repository of the hopes of millions of Pakistanis as well as Western strategists seeking to turn the tables on the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida – is dead, her blood saturating Naheed’s traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez dress.
Outside, in Liaquat Bagh, a large park in the Pakistani garrison city of Rawalpindi, headquarters of the Pakistani army, there is mayhem. In the falling dusk a suicide bomber explodes himself in the midst of the crowd pressing around the Landcruiser. More blood and gore splatters across the vehicle’s windshield. Smoke and screams fill the air. There is carnage. Bodies everywhere.
Naheed’s husband, Senator Safdar Abbasi, another long-serving Bhutto aide and a doctor, leans forward from his seat in the rear. He feels Bhutto’s pulse. “There was none,” he tells me.
“No pulse. Bibi died instantly. She was dead as she fell against Naheed. Lifeless. Within a few minutes, we had got her to the Rawalpindi hospital. The doctors did what they could. But she was dead from the moment she was hit.”
Abbasi’s recollection, as he and Naheed speak to me in their ivy-covered farmhouse on the fringes of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, barely a 20-minute drive from where Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2007, is crucial. Neither has said much publicly since the tragedy. Grief-stricken, they’ve avoided interviews.
But now, to me, they talk freely. And they provide further insight into the Machiavellian conspiracy that destroyed a leader promising to lead Pakistan to a new democratic dawn – a conspiracy so malevolent and so complex that its tentacles have yet to be fully revealed.
“Instant death such as occurred in Bibi’s assassination is caused not by a blunt instrument but by something very sharp and carefully targeted,” Abbasi says. (In the immediate aftermath of the murder, the country’s ruling military regime, headed by General Pervez
Rather, they inflamed it, especially as evidence mounted that Bhutto died not from the bang on the head but from a bullet wound; and while the man with the handgun shown in the video was standing to the left of the vehicle, Bhutto was hit in her right temple.
Adding to the controversy are a series of disclosures – some revealed for the first time during The Weekend Australian Magazine’s investigation – that suggest a conspiracy way beyond the wit and capability of Baitullah and his Islamic extremist followers, who have no record of using snipers in any attacks before or since Bhutto was killed.
“No one has provided any answers, only question marks,” says prominent lawyer Athar Minallah, a close associate of chief justice Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry. “To me the whole thing smells … it all looks like a huge conspiracy and no one is giving us any answers.” He adds: “This was an unforgivable atrocity. The truth should be told so at least her children know what happened. But perhaps one will never, ever know the truth.”
Minallah’s despair matches that of Naheed Khan and Safdar Abbasi, both tough-as-nails political operators. That despair is hardly surprising, for at every turn as I set out to uncover the conspiracy that killed Bhutto, what emerges is as scandalous as it is astounding.
For a start, consider some basic facts of the case. Within 45 minutes of Bhutto’s death, the entire crime scene was washed down with high- pressure hoses wielded by workers from Rawalpindi’s 1122 emergency services.
Any possible piece of forensic evidence was swept away. Nothing was left for investigators.
– Strange? Indeed.
Almost, but not quite: similar hosing of a major crime scene occurred only once previously, according to legal sources. That was in the port city of Karachi a few weeks earlier when, on her return from eight years exile, a vehicle carrying Bhutto in a three million-strong cavalcade of supporters was attacked by bombers intent on killing her.
I was there.
Then, too, high-pressure hoses appeared miraculously within minutes, on fetid streets that do not see a street cleaner for years on end. Any forensic evidence relating to the attack was swiftly washed away.
And as Minallah points out, the hosing of the Bhutto crime scene contrasts tellingly with what occurred a couple of years previously, when there was an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Musharraf at a spot not 2km from Liaquat Bagh, and administered by the same authorities.
The crime scene in the Musharraf attack was immediately sealed off and subjected to intensive forensic examination – one so detailed that the sim card used in the bomb assault was found and led to the prosecution of the plotters.
In last March’s assault on Sri Lanka’s cricketers in Lahore, too, the crime scene was sealed off for weeks while forensic evidence was gathered.
But for the attacks on Bhutto, the military dictatorship’s bete noire, there was no such examination.
No autopsy was carried out on Bhutto, despite Pakistan law mandating one in all cases of murder.
Minallah, who was on the board of the Rawalpindi hospital to which Bhutto was taken, says doctors told police it was “extremely advisable” an autopsy be carried out, offering to bring examiners to the hospital rather than take the body to the local morgue. “The officials declined and the body was washed [in accordance with Muslim ritual] and taken immediately to the airport to be flown to the family mausoleum in their ancestral home of Larkana, in Sindh province,” he says.
Nor were any other autopsies performed on the two dozen other victims at the rally “Under our law, only a magistrate can rule there should be no autopsy. There must be an autopsy. Yet there were none in the case of Ms Bhutto or the others who were killed,” says Minallah.
Other sources claim there is a sinister precedent for autopsies not being carried out: when the attempt was made to assassinate Musharraf, helicopter-borne commandos were immediately brought in. They are alleged to have fired indiscriminately into a crowd of innocent civilians.
No autopsy was carried out on those killed.
Central to untangling the conspiracy is establishing whether she did, indeed, die from a bullet wound, or whether the Musharraf regime’s assertion that she died from a bump on the head can be sustained.
Minallah insists that on the night of the assassination doctors told him Bhutto died from a bullet wound, or wounds, to the head. Critical, too, is the sequence of events, with the Musharraf dictatorship’s account now widely disbelieved, despite support from a Scotland Yard probe that, on its own admission, “was complicated by the lack of an extended and detailed search of the crime scene, [and] the absence of an autopsy…”
The regime insisted that the suicide bomb went off and that this caused Bhutto’s head to collide with the sunroof, causing her death. UK Home Office pathologist Dr Nathaniel Cary assisted Scotland Yard in the investigation, requested by Musharraf.
He concluded that “the only tenable cause for the rapidly fatal head injury in this case is that it occurred as a result of impact due to the effects of the bomb blast … Bhutto died as a result of a severe head injury sustained as a consequence of the bomb blast and due to head impact somewhere in the escape hatch of the vehicle.”
His assertion is contradicted by just about everyone who was in the vicinity at the time. Naheed Khan is emphatic: “What we have seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears is that Bibi had fallen back inside the car before the bomb blast: she was in my lap, the wound pouring blood, when the bomb went off.”
Others confirm this version.
It was politically convenient for the regime to blame Bhutto’s death on a suicide bomber sent by Baitullah and linked to the Taliban and al-Qa’ida.
The following morning, interior ministry spokesman Brigadier laved Iqbal Cheema claimed the bomber was an al-Qa’ida operative. He maintained that the regime’s intelligence services had, that morning, recorded a telephone conversation between Baitullah and another militant leader in which they congratulated each other on Bhutto’s assassination.
But the attempt to blame Baitullah soon appeared dubious, if not farcical. Newsmen asked repeatedly for tapes of the recording, but they were not forthcoming. It was claimed that in the intercept Baitullah identified exactly where he was, down to the house number in Pakistan’s remote tribal badlands where he was staying.
Yet, despite being at the top of the nation’s list of most wanted terrorists and now accused of engineering Bhutto’s death, no action was taken to capture him.
As well – and perhaps significantly, given the enthusiasm with which he always trumpeted the “success” of his suicide bombers – Baitullah went to extraordinary lengths before and after Bhutto’s assassination to insist that she was not a target and that he was not responsible.
After the first attempt was made to kill her in Karachi, the Musharraf regime, similarly, tried to blame the attack on Baitullah.
But The Weekend Australian Magazine has learnt that the militant leader, through intermediaries, repeatedly reassured Bhutto that he was not involved. PPP spokesman Faratullah Babar says that after the Karachi attack Bhutto received a message from Baitullah in which he said: “Identify your enemy. I am not your foe. I have nothing to do with you or against you or with the assassination attempt.”
Similarly, Baitullah, after Bhutto was killed, sent a series of messages to her confidants – including the widely respected General Naseerullah Babar – assuring them that he, Baitullah, was not involved and that the “villains” responsible for the assassination should be “sought elsewhere”.
– So, can Baitullah be ruled out?
Five men believed to have links to the (strangely, as yet unnamed) suicide bomber at Liaquat Bagh have been in custody since the assassination. They have appeared before a closed Anti-Terrorism Court in Rawalpindi. Baitullah’s name was added, in absentia, to the list of accused.
Few believe that the proceedings, initiated by Musharraf, have much credibility, although Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s powerful interior minister, tells me: “Perhaps they have links to South Waziristan [Baitullah’s former stronghold]. But the question is this: ‘Who was pulling the strings?’ They are only a small part of a much bigger story.”
That question goes to the heart of the mystery, for Baitullah, like so many of Pakistan’s Taliban and al-Qa’ida-linked warlords, was a
creation of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies led by the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence.
He had longstanding links to the spy agency that played a key – and highly duplicitous – role under the Musharraf dictatorship. Indeed, few seeking to uncover the conspiracy that killed Bhutto would bet against “the agencies” having used their long-established, clandestine links to the militants to mount a joint operation that involved a suicide bombing to provide cover for a skilled sniper or snipers firing at Bhutto.
– “Who was behind the conspiracy?”
That is the question, says Rehman Malik, who provides me with the previously undisclosed information that the quantity of blood found in the Bhutto vehicle is consistent with a high-velocity round. He quotes a neurosurgeon from the Rawalpindi hospital saying that “it could not be a bump on the head … it was something that suddenly cut her off … it was probably a bullet, probably a high-powered bullet.” He adds there is no doubt that Bhutto’s was what he terms “a targeted killing” rather than a random suicide-bomb attack, saying he is “not ruling anyone in, or anyone out” of the conspiracy.
Sitting beside Abbasi in the back of Bhutto’s vehicle on the day she was killed was her principal personal security officer, Khalid Shahenshah. Like Abbasi and Naheed Khan, he was a crucial witness to events.
But Shahenshah was killed in an as-yet unexplained drive-by shooting in July last year – before he could testify to any investigative body, including the United Nations commission now looking into Bhutto’s assassination with a mandate to report to the Security Council by the end of the year.
There has been no proper investigation to discover who may have killed Shahenshah. Rumours are rife that he was “rubbed out” before he could give evidence.
General Hamid Gul, a crusty former head of the ISI, was one of four people named by Bhutto as conspirators in the attempt on her life in Karachi; another was the then director of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau – a former ISI handler of both Osama bin Laden and the British-born terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed, who was accused of beheading Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
When I ask General Gul about Bhutto’s allegation of his involvement in a conspiracy, he describes it as “a preposterous Musharraf, claimed that Bhutto died from banging her head against the rim of the Landcruiser’s sunroof following the detonation of the suicide bomb in the crowd attending the election rally)
The way she died – her instant death – suggests very sharp sniper fire … a typical intelligence [agency] operation,” says Abbasi.
Naheed agrees: “There were bullets coming from different directions … there are lots of high buildings overlooking the area … this was a typical intelligence operation.”
Naheed and Abbasi are key witnesses to what occurred that day.
They were among a handful of people in close proximity to Bhutto
In any instruction manual on how to conduct a murder investigation, their insights would be vital. But incredibly – and inexplicably – they have been ignored in the at best desultory and at worst criminally negligent attempts made to find Bhutto’s killers.
“No one has asked us what happened,” says Naheed, a dignified, dark-haired woman still mourning the death of the woman she served so selflessly “We were the closest people, the eyewitnesses. But no one has asked us for a statement.”
Despite a government led by Bhutto’s own PPP that has been in power in Islamabad for 17 months – and headed as president by her controversial widower, Asif Ali Zardari, the “Mr Ten Percent” who brought such opprobrium to her previous administrations – the investigation, such as it is, has been sporadic and unfocused.
When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the Warren Commission was formed immediately to gather evidence.
There was the same rush to establish the facts after Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995, when Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri was blown up 17 years later and, indeed, in the aftermath of most of modern history’s major political assassinations.
But not, curiously, in Pakistan, despite the pivotal role Bhutto played in the nation’s life and on the world stage. Here, there has been no such rush; instead, an apparent reluctance to uncover the plot to kill her.
There are widely divergent views about the assassination.
The Musharraf regime claimed the bomber was sent by the leader of the Pakistan Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud – who was himself killed in a US unmanned drone attack last month. A grainy video showing the alleged bomber as well as a man with a handgun standing in the crowd to the left of the Landcruiser was released shortly after.
But these claims – crafted to attribute blame to Baitullah’s militants and to leave it at that – did nothing to settle the notion” and confirms that, despite the allegations, neither he nor any of the others named by Bhutto has been questioned by investigators.
General Gul, a canny commentator on Pakistani politics, offers another theory. “One thing I do know is that she broke the pledge she made to the Americans,” he tells me. Recalling that on November 2, 2007, Bhutto went to her home in Dubai for a brief rest, Gul notes that she returned to Pakistan in a state of great rage the next day after Musharraf declared a state of emergency.
She was furious. Deal or no deal, promises or no promises to the Bush administration about working with Musharraf, she insisted that the military dictator had gone too far and had to be removed – something that did not accord with Washington’s diktat.
“I’ve heard that as part of the American annoyance with her,” says Gul, “[vice president Dick] Cheney withdrew an agreement to provide her with 25 Blackwater people [private security staff] to protect her.”
This was not the last time Bhutto had been left exposed. Rehman Malik, her chief security adviser at the time, was deeply worried by the lax security at Liaquat Bagh.
A little earlier on the day of the assassination there had been a shooting at a nearby election rally held by another prominent politician, Nawaz Shari f. Malik says police assigned to protect Bhutto were redeployed to Sharif’s rally. “This was a criminal act,” he says. As a result of the withdrawal of police, say Naheed Khan and Safdar Abbasi, Bhutto’s Landcruiser, when it was driving from the election rally, was “isolated”, hemmed in by the crowd and cut off from support vehicles.
This had never happened before. As well, the Landcruiser was diverted to travel left out of the gates of Liaquat Bagh instead of right as it was supposed to do. It was then the assassins struck.
– So, what to make of yet another element in the equation – a mysterious visit to Bhutto at her Islamabad home in the early hours of December 27, 2007, the day she was killed, by the then director of the ISI, General Nadeem Taj, one of the men closest to Musharraf?
Naheed Khan tells me that at around midnight, after returning from a rally, Bhutto bade her goodnight and went upstairs, saying she was going to bed. Later she learnt that at 2am, Taj arrived to see Bhutto.
Rehman Malik says he was with Bhutto and insists that “the ISI had been warning throughout about security. Mostly on that day we discussed the election.”
Given Bhutto’s extremely hostile relations with Musharraf it is not difficult to understand why speculation is rampant about what the ISI boss might have said to her about her security at the fatal rally later in the day.
– So why is it taking officialdom so long to probe her assassination, much less come up with answers?
Rehman Malik, frustrated by progress thus far, has set up a new Joint Investigative Team in the country’s top federal agency.
Meanwhile, the UN’s investigators are finally at work.
But neither probe inspires much confidence. And the failure to produce answers is reinforcing the belief that the conspiracy that killed Bhutto is so sensitive, and goes so deep into Pakistan’s precarious power structure, that it is difficult to expose details of it to public scrutiny.
Naheed Khan warns that grassroots support for the ruling PPP will evaporate unless answers are forthcoming soon. “We have to identify the killers … if the PPP is unable to do so, there will be grave repercussions. There will be real problems at the next election. People are furious.”
In this overheated atmosphere, most of the speculation centres, inevitably, on a conspiracy involving “suicide bombers for hire” and snipers from one or other of the military regime’s intelligence agencies.
And amid all the innuendo, even Bhutto’s controversial husband Zardari is dragged into the rumour mill, with incredible suggestions that he may have been involved in his wife’s assassination.
One highly placed legal source is quick to defend him: “Only two people were going to benefit from Bibi’s killing – one was Musharraf, the other was Zardari. It is simply impossible to believe that Zardari was involved, because he controlled nothing at the time. He was living in Dubai. He wasn’t even a candidate in the
election. He was Mr Nobody and could not have ordered the high-pressure hoses on to the streets.
And if he was involved, Musharraf would have lost no time in exposing that when Zardari was trying to get him out of the presidency. He would have held a trump card that he would have played against Zardari with relish.”
A few days before she was killed, Bhutto called me at my hotel. We were supposed to talk about the election. Instead, she wanted to talk about old times – a friendship dating back 30 years to the time when I reported on the trial and execution of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
We spoke about Zardari. He was, she said, at the family’s home in Dubai and staying put. His health was not good. He would not be returning to Pakistan.
Within hours of the assassination, however, Zardari was back, asserting himself as the new leader of the PPP and taking control of the government that was subsequently elected, before installing himself as president after Musharraf was forced from office: no hint of ill- health.
Much of the speculation about Zardari and Bhutto’s assassination is based on his sudden and unexpected emergence in so powerful a position.
Burying the truth
With the Destruction of virtually all possible forensic evidence within hours of Bhutto’s assassination, it may never be possible, Athar Minallah suggests, to establish the truth of what and who was behind the conspiracy. But as someone who has reported on Pakistan for almost 35 years, I suspect the involvement of “the agencies” working for the former military dictatorship, using snipers as well as fanatics from within the suicide bomber ranks of the militants.
Bhutto deserved better than the travesty of what are now passing for investigations into her assassination. Pakistan’s 170 million people, desperate to rid themselves of the dictatorship, were about to embrace her and sweep her back into office.
A Bhutto government would have had the electoral legitimacy – something that eludes Zardari’s unpopular administration – needed to deal effectively with the militants.
But it was not to be. The conspirators wanted her dead. And now they are doing everything to cover their tracks.
But Naheed Khan says the conspirators’ efforts to bury the truth are ultimately doomed.
“Pakistan’s people won’t allow that to happen,” she says. “The people want answers, and I believe as a Muslim that they will not rest until those answers are forthcoming. And they will not spare whoever is shown to have killed Bibi, however long they have to wait to find out.”