Catching Benazir’s Killers: Can Islamabad Confront Army?

Catching Benazir

On April 15, 2010, a United Nations commission of inquiry into the assassination of Pakistan’s former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, made its report public. This first step towards solving the terrible crime and settling the case – consisting of preliminary findings and pointers – has taken nearly 28 months. How much longer will it take for the process to be taken to its logical conclusion?

Indications are that it will take indefinitely long. Far from ruled out is the possibility that the assassination remains an unsolved mystery and the process of justice incomplete forever in this case. The process is up against what continues to be the most powerful of forces in Pakistan: the army-backed “establishment” (as everyone calls it in the country). This remains no less an entrenched force for the elections of 2009 and the installation of a civilian government.

This is not the first of political murders in South Asia to have defied attempts at solving them, with democratic processes failing to bring the culprits to book. Two striking examples can be cited.

It was only on January 28, 2010, that five convicted persons were hanged for the assassination of the founder-president of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, on August 15, 1975. This may not close the chapter, as originally 15 ex-army officers faced the same charge.

The process of justice is incomplete now, and cannot possibly be taken forward, in the case of the assassination of India’s former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, on May 21, 1991. While the suicide bomber was shot to bits along with the victim, the alleged masterminds of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could and can never be produced in an Indian court: they are all dead. Only a woman convicted as an accomplice, with a peripheral role in the crime even by official accounts, still languishes in an Indian prison.

The Benazir assassination falls in a different category. The Rajiv case could not be solved, above all, because the main accused, slain LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, could not be extradited from Sri Lanka and brought to India. A section of the Bangladesh army carried out the Mujib assassination and the coup of 1975, but it is civilian, electoral politics that has eventually carried the day.

If the investigation of the Benazir killing is taking so long, and if its advance seems so uncertain, it is because the army-centered “establishment” enjoys a political power and pre-eminence, to which the return of Pakistan’s repeatedly derailed democracy has so far made precious little difference. The course of the case following the UN report, consequently, will also determine the future of Pakistan’s democracy.

The independent, three-member UN commission, headed by Chilean diplomat Heraldo Muñoz, was set up in July 2009 at the request of the Pakistan government. The commission was mandated to investigate the “facts and circumstances” of Benazir’s death, and not to assign criminal responsibility. Its findings, however, clearly point in the direction of the “establishment.”

Particularly notable are the panel’s observations about the post-assassination role of the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military intelligence agency nurtured into a monster by dictatorships in the past and by the always powerful army during Pakistan’s democratic interludes.
Stopping just short of fixing criminal responsibility on the ISI, the commission declares that the “pervasive” spy agency “impeded an unfettered search for the truth”. Along with the police, says the commission, the ISI “deliberately failed” to properly probe the 54-year-old leader’s tragic and avoidable end.

The commission notes “credible assertions” it encountered about “politicized and clandestine actions by the intelligence services — the ISI, the Military Intelligence, and the Intelligence Bureau.” It adds: “Intelligence services, including the…ISI…were present during key points in the police investigation, including the gathering of evidence at the crime scene and the forensic examination of Ms Bhutto’s vehicle, playing a role that the police were reluctant to reveal to the commission.”

More concretely, the commission suggests that the agencies could have been behind decisions that seem designed to erase all pieces of evidence. These included the decision to hose down the crime scene within 90 minutes of the event and not to conduct an autopsy. The commission says: “Police records show that only 23 pieces of evidence were collected, in a case where one would normally have expected thousands.”

The commission takes its findings to their inevitable conclusion when it says that Benazir could have been saved if the administration of then President General Pervez Musharraf had taken “adequate security measures.” Even on the morrow of the tragedy of December 27, 2007, there was virtually no taker for the Musharraf regime’s version that Benazir was killed “when she tried to duck back into the vehicle, and the shock waves from the blast knocked her head into a lever attached to the sunroof, fracturing her skull.” The labored explanation was widely viewed as a despicable attempt to deny her martyrdom (though not the attempt on her life).

The “accident” theory only made the tragedy appear to more and more people as a military-militant crime. The commission more than suggests the civilian government’s course of investigation by stressing the culpability of Musharrraf and his regime, and mentioning quite a few of his officials as well. Many are asking the million-dollar question: will the indicated course be taken, despite the military displeasure the civilian government may incur by embarking on it?

The report does not seem have frightened the former President. According to the Lahore-based Daily Times, “Recently spotted merrily dancing away at an event in Long Island, Musharraf dismissed the UN report as a laughable document.” The paper issues a stern warning: “At the cost of breaking his bubble, this report was launched and conducted with public money, to the tune of millions of dollars, and the Pakistani public takes its contents very seriously.”

In an editorial, it adds: “There are already voices claiming that hauling in Musharraf would annoy the military establishment. The government should not be deterred by such doomsayers.”

The government, however, may have been motivated by a limited objective in seeking a UN inquiry (after a Scotland Yard team landed in Pakistan on January 4, 2008, and beat a rapid retreat on discovering that evidence had largely been erased). The objective became obvious when Islamabad sought delay in the publication of the commission’s report, ready even in March. The Pakistan government wanted the commission to include a clear and explicit exoneration of Benazir’s widower Asif Ali Zardari, current President as well as the Co-Chairman of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

The commission has obliged Islamabad on this count. Will the satisfied government still have the gumption to take on the army and its intelligence agencies?

The last heard on the subject is that a First Information Report (FIR) — a police document on a cognizable offense that initiates the process of investigation and justice in Pakistan and India – has been filed against Musharraf in a Rawalpindi police station. Many an FIR, however, is known to turn into a fading piece of paper in this part of the world without the case being carried far. It will take popular pressure to ensure that memories of Benazir Bhutto prevail over the power of the military-based “establishment.”