Even 18 months after her assassination, Benazir Bhutto’s presence is ubiquitous in Pakistan. Portraits of the former Prime Minister, killed in a terror attack on an election rally in December 2007, continue to adorn government buildings, supporters’ cars, and vast billboards. Visitors to Islamabad land at Benazir Bhutto International Airport, board a taxi that will drive down Benazir Bhutto road, and can pay the fare using limited edition Benazir Bhutto coins. Still, the country is no closer to definitively answering the question of who authored Bhutto’s murder.
Within days of her burial, the government of then-President Pervez Musharraf had fingered Baitullah Mehsud, the notorious Taliban commander. It enlisted the police expertise of London’s Scotland Yard to establish the exact circumstance of Bhutto’s death Pakistan’s Interior Ministry, meanwhile, furnished telephone intercepts that pointed to Mehsud’s involvement. The CIA agreed that the Taliban commander was the principal suspect. Although he has since denied involvement in the killing, Mehsud was reported to have issued threats against Bhutto, a pro-Western opponent of Islamist extremism. But opinion polls found most Pakistanis skeptical of the official story. Instead, conspiracy theories acquired a rare potency.
Now, the government led by Bhutto’s widower, President Asif Ali Zardari, hopes that the United Nations to settle the matter of who orchestrated the assassination. On Wednesday, a U.N. fact-finding commission launched its inquiry into Bhutto’s assassination. A three-person team, headed by Chile’s ambassador to the U.N., is due to arrive in Islamabad later this month, and report to Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon within six months. Its report will then be shared with the Pakistan government. Opposition politicians and a broad range of critics in Pakistan, however, have questioned the purpose and timing of the U.N. probe.
The demand for a U.N. probe was partly inspired by the international body’s investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri four years ago, says Hussain Haroon, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.N. “We thoroughly investigated the Hariri case, but there were some pitfalls there that we want to avoid,” he says. “In this particular case, the government of Pakistan was interested in retaining some aspects of sovereignty, whereas in the Hariri case, they were not in the hands of the Lebanese government.” Other crucial differences include the fact that “the Bhutto Commission,” as it is being called, will not have the authority to launch criminal proceedings. As a U.N. representative told reporters on Wednesday, the probe will “just inquire into the facts and the circumstances of the assassination.”
The inquiry has set up shop in a U.N. office in Islamabad. “They have started receiving reams of transcripts and translations,” says Haroon, including police case files and the Scotland Yard report. One of the assistants to Heraldo Munoz, the Chilean ambassador, is Peter Fitzgerald, a retired senior officer with Ireland’s national police force. “Fitzgerald has worked on Hariri and in Bosnia,” adds Haroon, “he’s a great sleuth.” Haroon sees the need for an investigation of international stature to allay the not uncommon suspicion of official collusion in her death.
Immediately after Bhutto’s assassination, many Pakistanis accused elements within Musharraf’s government or the military establishment of involvement a charge angrily denied by Musharraf and his aides. Still, just last month, Bhutto’s son and political heir, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, suggested that the dictatorship had been responsible for creating the conditions that led to his mother’s killing. At a rare public speech in the British town of Bradford, the 20-year-old Oxford University student who plans to return to Pakistan and enter politics after completing his degree told an emotionally-charged crowd of supporters: “The extremists pulled the trigger, but it was dictatorship that loaded the gun … it was dictatorship that allowed these fanatics to thrive.”
For some critics, the new inquiry is too limited in scope and comes too late. “It is an insult to the intelligence of the people, at the expense of millions of dollars,” says Iqbal Haider, who served as attorney general and law minister in Bhutto’s governments. “What would an inquiry do after more than one and a half year has passed, when all the evidence was washed away, and no autopsy was taken of Benazir Bhutto or the 20 party workers who died with her” Haider says the new civilian government should have announced “a high-powered judicial commission to conduct the inquiry” as soon as it came into office. Like many, he would not have trusted the Musharraf government with the task.
Ahsan Iqbal, spokesman for the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz argues that “instead of the U.N., it would have been better if the inquiry had been done by a national institution. Now that we have an independent judiciary, that would have been possible. Or, if the government feared the matter getting politicized, it could have been held by a bipartisan parliamentary committee.” But U.N. ambassador Haroon counters that the demand for the U.N. inquiry emerged out of a parliamentary resolution. Another government official adds the argument that a U.N. inquiry will be completed even if the current government is overthrown an understandable fear given Pakistan’s history of abbreviated civilian governments.
A deeper fear is that the U.N. inquiry may fail to produce results. Both of Bhutto’s brothers, Shahnawaz and Murtaza, were killed years earlier in circumstances that remain disputed. Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the dictator who had her father executed and against whom she vigorously battled, was killed in an as-yet unexplained mid-air explosion. And Liaquat Bagh, the park in Rawalpindi where Bhutto had been speaking moments before the assassins struck, is named after Pakistan’s first prime minister who was killed there in chillingly similar circumstances to those Bhutto’s murder. This time, Pakistanis hope they can prevent yet another high-profile assassination remain unexplained.
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