It was all over in 1.26 seconds—three gunshots, and a suicide bombing outside Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh, at the end of which Benazir Bhutto was killed, on the cusp of a general election in Pakistan that her party was poised to win.
It has taken all of 10 years for a court verdict in the case, and the world still has no idea who killed Benazir. The court acquitted five suspects affiliated to the Tehreek-e-Taliban – Rafaqat Hussain, Husnain Gul, Sher Zaman, Aitzaz Shah, and Abdul Rashid. It has convicted two police officials, Saud Aziz and Khurram Shahzad, for not making proper security arrangements for Benazir at Liaquat Bagh, and afterward the bombing, not securing the crime scene to protect evidence. It has declared Pervez Musharraf, who was then president of Pakistan, an absconder, and ordered attachment of his properties in Pakistan.
While the five Taliban suspects were arrested soon after the assassination, the policemen and Musharraf were named by a FIA investigation, that submitted its report in 2010. Musharraf has been blamed for not providing Benazir enough security.
The two policemen have been sentenced to 17 years each in prison and have been arrested immediately. One of them, the SP of Rawalpindi, was in charge when the Fire Engines arrived and hosed down the crime scene.
Benazir’s children, and her party, have rejected the judgement, and said they will appeal it. Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, now the chairman of Pakistan People’s Party, and Aseefa Zardari Bhutto, her youngest daughter tweeted: “10 years later and we still await justice. Abettors punished but those truly guilty of my mothers murder roam free”.
The judgement has raised more questions than it answered. But such an ending was foretold, considering the shabby investigation from the start and the politics and conspiracy theories that hobbled it. Even the Pakistan People’s Party, after it took over the reins of the government months after the killing, seemed uninterested in getting the assassination properly investigated, content instead in letting the conspiracy theories swirl. It did get a UN Commission to investigate the circumstances of the killing, but though it was a clear-eyed look on all that goes on in Pakistan, it had limited value for the nuts and bolts of a criminal investigation itself.
Immediately after the killing, Musharraf announced that it had been ordered by the then leader of TTP Beithullah Mehsud (subsequently killed in a US drone attack in south Waziristan). The PPP rejected the theory, saying Musharraf had pre-empted an investigation, and that his statement was intended to cover up a possible involvement by the intelligence agencies.
Initial government investigations led to the conclusion that Benazir died after she hit her head on the lever of her Toyota Land Cruiser’s sun roof, when she fell into the car from the sun roof due to the impact of the blast.
There was outrage in Pakistan and an international uproar over the cleaning up of the crime scene by fire engines within minutes of the assassination. The PPP insisted she was killed by a bullet. Musharraf then invited the Scotland Yard to send an investigation team. The British officers arrived on January 4, 2008, and within a month submitted a report that seconded the Pakistan government’s conclusion on the cause of death. There had been no post mortem at the request of Benazir’s husband Asif Ali Zardari.
The Punjab government had set up a joint investigation team after the assassination, but in the circumstances that prevailed then it had no credibility, and the PPP government did not ensure that it got any. When it did not name Musharraf in its report, the government handed over the investigation to the FIA, which named the retired military ruler in its chargesheet submitted in 2010.
Meanwhile, pushed by Zardari, who had become President by then, the government asked the UN to appoint a commission of inquiry into Benazir’s assassination. The Commission was headed by Heraldo Munoz Valenzuela, then Chile’s Permanent Representative to the UN, and had two other members, a former Indonesian attoney general, and a retired police official.
Its mandate was not an investigation into who killed Benazir, but to “investigate the facts and circumstances” surrounding the assassination. Its 70-page report does not identify any suspects, but recommended that the government carry out an investigation taking into account that any number of possible actors had motives to kill Benazir – Al Qaeda, Pakistani Taliban, Punjabi jihadi groups raised to fight India – and actors in Pakistan’s notorious “establishment” that wields the real power in Pakistan.
The report did not contradict the Beithullah Mehsud theory, but it tore into Musharraf, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and the “establishment” for having obstructed a proper police investigation. Leaving nothing to the imagination, it defined establishment, the term as “the de facto power structure that has as its permanent core the military high command and intelligence agencies, in particular, the powerful, military-run the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as well as Military Intelligence (MI) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB)”.
It named several retired and serving officers in Musharraf’s government for acts of omission and commission.
Among these acts: not providing enough security to Benazir despite her being an ex-Prime Minister (though there were specific instructions to secure two other former PMs, there was no record of any such instruction in her case); not providing enough support to the sole security officer provided to her, including not aceding to his requests for a jammer and other security equipment; not securing her enough at what was to be her last rally, but deploying nearly 1,500 policemen for crowd control.
SP Khurram, now convicted, and other police officials told the Commission that “hosing down the crime scene was a necessary crowd control measure”. They claimed that PPP supporters had started dipping their hands into the blood on the ground, believing it to be Benazir’s, and rubbing it on themselves, and the police feared a law and order situation.
But the Commission, which was also told that while this had never been done before in a civilian crime scene or terror attack, it had been done each time the military had been targeted, concluded that this only pointed to a military instruction to clean up the scene.
The report also said the ISI carried out a parallel investigation into the assassination, questioning and detaining suspects, but only selectively sharing the information with police, overawing the civilian force, and clouding its professional judgment. Further, the police did not know how far to go with the investigation, in case the intelligence agencies were involved in it.
Though there will be an appeal, and more court proceedings, Benazir’s assassination is set to join President Zia’s death in a plane crash, and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s killing at the same park outside which Benazir met her end (which is named after him) as Pakistan’s big national question marks, spawning conspiracy theories, becoming yet another source of bitter divisions, and preventing closure.