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Friday, September 24, 2021

‘Musharraf was my assassin, Benazir told me’

Today, ten years after Benazir Bhutto's untimely death, no one seems interested in proceeding against the man who abrogated the Pakistan Constitution twice.

Written by Hamid Mir |
Updated: December 28, 2017 7:40:07 am
Benazir Bhutto, Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto death, Benazir Bhuttao assassination, Pakistan, former Pakistan Prime Minister, indian express opinion Former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto (Express archive photo)

It is not easy for me to write about late Benazir Bhutto. For me, she was not just a politician; she was a source of inspiration, a mentor and at times a teacher. Whenever I think about her I feel as if I have lost an elder sister. She was an extraordinary woman who struggled hard to restore democracy in Pakistan and became the first ever woman prime minister of any Muslim country.

I was 24-years-old in 1990. She called me one day, after reading an article I wrote in the ‘Daily Jang’, and suggested that I write a book. I told her I was far too young to be authoring a book. She insisted, “No, you can write a book.” I wrote my first book the same year.

Fast forward to a few days before her assassination in 2007. She confided in me about who she suspected would want her killed. “You must expose my killers after my murder,” she said. Her enemies wanted her to leave Pakistan. But she refused to take dictation from the dictator Pervez Musharraf. No matter what, she would not run away. Even when she was aware that her presence was a threat to her life, Benazir Bhutto chose to embrace martyrdom on her own soil than flee. She sacrificed her life by not surrendering to the forces of evil.

I have never met such a brave woman.

Interestingly, she once told me that she had wanted to be a journalist. In 1976, she hosted a talk show on Pakistan Television that was named, ‘The Encounter.’ But circumstances forced her to join the political resistance against the martial law of General Zia ul-Haq the following year.

I took great pride when she said that “Hamid Mir is my favorite journalist.” Initially I thought that she was only encouraging me because she knew my father. But then one day the late Salman Taseer, who was the secretary, in charge of information of the Pakistan People’s Party, asked her in my presence about it. “Why is he your favorite journalist?” he inquired. “Well, because he supports and praises me without any interest and criticizes me without any fear,” she replied.

We had disagreements too, often. On every such occasion she would aggressively state her point of view but also listened to my counter argument with patience. At times I agreed with her, but many times I didn’t. Regardless, she forgot and forgave my badtameezi like an elder sister would.

I also want to take this opportunity to talk about some of the letters she wrote to me. I have never mentioned these letters before.

In 1992, some unknown people tried to abduct me while I was in Lahore. Bhutto read about the kidnapping attempt in the ‘Friday Times’ edited by Najam Sethi and quickly sent me a letter of concern. “I was concerned to learn that some unknown persons attempted to kidnap you. However I am relieved to know that you are safe. May God protect you,” she wrote.  Then in 1994, I lost my job after I wrote an article in the ‘Daily Jang’ about a submarine scandal in the Pakistan Navy. Some officials wanted to buy a submarine from France, while others insisted on getting it from China. I criticized the activities of some businessmen who were close to Asif Ali Zardari. They had attempted to manipulate the submarine deal.

The day my article was printed my job was terminated by 11 am, without any explanation. In those days, Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister. Opposition parties held Zardari responsible for my sacking. On hearing this, Bibi called me to the prime minister house. She said Zardari was innocent. She offered me an important office in the government. I refused. On hearing this, she began clapping. “Well done young man. That is why you are my favorite journalist,” she added with a smile. My job was restored by my newspaper within a few days, but I soon resigned from there.

She wrote another letter to me after many years. This is when she was in exile. I had recently written a column about the imprisonment of Asif Ali Zardari in 2003. Musharraf was then in power and Zardari was embroiled in many cases in various courts. Musharraf wanted a deal with Zardari like he had done with Nawaz Sharif in 2000. He offered to release Zardari from jail and in return wanted Benazir Bhutto to leave politics. An ISI official, Maj Gen Ehtasham Zameer met Zardari in detention and offered the deal. Zardari refused. Very few people were raising a voice for Benazir Bhutto’s husband. When my column about Zardari was published Bhutto wrote a long letter of thanks to me. In it she reminded me of her first visit to our house in 1986 when she had come to see my father Professor Waris Mir. She had a great memory.

Few people know that Benazir Bhutto was very religious in her private life but always opposed religious extremism. I visited many Sufi shrines with her. When she was in exile she regularly arranged “Niaz’ (food for poor people) at several shrines. I remember accompanying her trusted family friend Bashir Riaz to some shrines in Lahore and Pakpatan where he distributed “Niaz” and pearl millet (bajra) for pigeons on her behalf. She always thought that Sufism is a binding force between Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh and Iran. Bashir Riaz was the one who convinced her brother Mir Murtaza Bhutto to shun differences with his sister and reunite. I also requested Murtaza to meet his sister. Finally the two met, but within a few days he was killed in Karachi.

I can’t forget her call to me in 2004. Musharraf’s regime was trying to overplay military operations in tribal areas. One day he claimed that his forces had surrounded a high value target in South Waziristan. He made this claim a few days before his visit to the US. I contradicted that claim in interviews to CNN and Fox News. That is when my phone rang. Benazir sahiba was calling from Dubai. “What do you think of yourself?” she said angrily, “There is a difference between bravery and madness. Don’t confront a military dictator and that too on international media. Your family needs you. Leave this to me. I will expose his double games.”

As for my last meeting with her, it was a few days before Dec. 27, 2007. She had invited me for breakfast at her residence in Islamabad. The breakfast table was laid out in the garage. I instantly knew why. It was to avoid our conservations from being bugged. There was a smile on her face, but her eyes were sad. Two months back, she had survived a suicide attack in Karachi.

First she asked about my family and then said, “I must confess, you were right about my conversation with Musharraf. It was just a trap. Musharraf only wanted to use me to prolong his power. He was not serious about restoring democracy to Pakistan. The dialogue between us is now over”. After a little pause she spoke the words that still haunt me. “Let me tell you today, very clearly, that they have already decided to kill me and they will kill me soon. After they do, they will blame the Taliban or the al Qaeda. But you must name Musharraf as my assassin.”

I was stunned. I asked her why “they” would want to kill her. Musharraf did not want her to return before the elections. “I did not listen to him. So he threatened me on the phone and said your security is based on the state of our relationship with me. Two foreign governments have advised me not to return to Pakistan as I could be killed.” She paused again and finally said: “If I am killed, please name Musharraf as my assassin.” By now I was completely shattered. Please be careful, I said, don’t give people another chance to attack you. At this she got very angry. “They want me to go back [to the West] but I will not leave. This is my country. I will die here.”

Certainly, Bhutto had also done her homework before returning. She wrote to Mark Siegel, her trusted friend in the United States, and told him that Musharraf would be her assassin. Siegel was told to share the letter with the BBC or CNN in case of another attack on her life. Benazir Bhutto was asked by then DG ISI Lt.Gen Nadeem Taj, personally, not to go to Liaqat Bagh in Rawalpindi to address a public meeting, due to security threats. Bibi told him she would not surrender to terrorists. She challenged religious extremists loudly in her last public address and was assassinated within minutes there. The first Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaqat Ali Khan, was also killed at the same place in 1951. Mark Siegel shared Bibi’s last email with Wolf Blitzer of CNN and within a few minutes of her assassination, CNN informed the world that Benazir Bhutto had named Musharraf as her assassin.

I was also the only journalist to be approached by the UN Inquiry Commission in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2010 to record my statement. The commission accused Musharraf of failing to provide adequate protection to Bhutto. Musharraf was included as a suspect in that case and declared an absconder in 2011. Yet, he returned to Pakistan in March 2013 to participate in the elections. Musharraf appeared in court in the Benazir murder case only once in April 2013 after which the court gave him four days remand. But shortly after, the main prosecutor, Chaudhry Zulfiqar, was mysteriously killed in Islamabad in May 2013. Musharraf then got bail.

Musharraf was allowed to leave Pakistan again in 2016 by the Nawaz Sharif government and the PPP remained silent. According to the verdict of the anti-terror court, an option was given to Musharraf to record his statement through video link or Skype but he did not show any response. Due to his “deliberate absence” from court he was declared a proclaimed offender.

Ten years after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the courts in Pakistan seem to be more interested in issuing arrest warrants against politicians. The so- called National Accountability Burea (NAB) has become a tool to malign politicians and weaken democracy. NAB recently ordered the government to arrest former Finance Minister and close relative of Nawaz Sharif Senator Ishaq Dar through Interpol, but is not interested at all to know how Musharraf became the owner of expensive properties in Dubai and London.

The Chief Justice of Pakistan is making surprise visits to hospitals of Lahore, concerned about drinking water in Karachi but is hardly bothered why the law of the land is not applicable on a proclaimed offender who is wanted in the murders of Benazir Bhutto and Nawab Akbar Bugti?

What is happening to the treason trial against this former dictator who is now trying to appease Hafiz Saeed and Jamaat ul Dawa (JuD)?  No champion of law is concerned about Musharraf who abrogated the Constitution of Pakistan twice. Benazir Bhutto’s own party does not seem to be interested in pursuing her murder case. The same party that uses her name to garner votes is more interested is returning to power at any price. The PPP has forgotten the Charter of Democracy which the late Bibi and Nawaz Sharif signed in 2006 in London.

Benazir Bhutto was the last popular politician in Pakistan who challenged religious extremists with bravery and courage. Today, popular politicians including Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan are reluctant to oppose extremists loudly. They tolerate extremists but they cannot tolerate criticism in the media. They are not large-hearted like Benazir Bhutto who always encouraged positive criticism. Our popular politicians speak against each other very aggressively but don’t speak against Musharraf.

People usually ask me why I create such noise about Musharraf in my writings and in my television appearances. I tell them that I fear facing Bibi in the hereafter. What if she asks me why, even after she told me about her assassin, I did nothing? When she was alive, I always had a counter argument for her. But if she were to ever ask me this, I would not know what to say. She once told me that there is difference between bravery and madness. I think I am now formulating my response to her. I will tell Bibi that I was mad about exposing Musharraf because all the “brave” politicians and judges of Pakistan forgot your accusations about this former dictator. I dearly hope she will understand. Bibi, rest in peace.

Hamid Mir is one of Pakistan’s top journalists and anchors a show on Geo News called ‘Capital Talk.’ He tweets @HamidMirPAK

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