Some stories are never quite put to rest. They spawn other narratives, fuelling an insatiable curiosity in the very fact of their non-resolution. The death of former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto in a suicide-bomb attack in Rawalpindi in December 2007 is one of those mysteries with all the ingredients of a thriller: a networked conspiracy, the deep state, disappearing witnesses, powerful men… and most importantly, a woman of some significance.
Some might say there is little surprise here; violence is no stranger to the Bhuttos (and to Pakistan’s leaders in general), South-East Asia has always had its conspiracies, the convoluted geo-politics of the region have spawned radical movements of many hues to find traction, and corruption causes the most solid of evidence to disappear.
Journalist and writer Owen Bennett-Jones returns to the story of Bhutto’s assassination a decade later, unearthing a cache of fresh information to fill out some of the gaps and draw some new — though inconclusive — analyses about the how and why of the incident. The Assassination , a 10-part podcast downloadable from BBC World Service, was recently adjudged the top entry in the Best True Crime category by British Podcast Awards, announced last month.
The central question that runs through the 10 episodes, as Bennett-Jones takes stock of the evidence is this: Why has no one been charged and convicted yet? Why, despite the enormous resources and reach of the Pakistani State, has the investigation into the assassination run into so many dead ends?
When asked what drew him back to the incident after all these years, Bennett-Jones said in an email interview: “It’s a story of grand themes — politics, democracy, violent jihadism, courage and redemption — alongside the low intrigue. It also reveals a lot about Pakistan.”
The podcast features the voices of several sources cultivated over the years, a network of informants from as far afield as Washington, Oxford, Kabul, Dubai and, of course, Islamabad. In the first episode Bennett-Jones introduces Bhutto as someone he “first got to know at a party [in Karachi] almost twenty years ago” when, as the BBC’s Pakistan correspondent, he “was trying to work out what was going on in one of the most complicated political systems on earth.”
Bennett-Jones builds a not-unsympathetic profile of Bhutto beginning with her college days in the U.S. and later, England, told in the voices of her friends and associates. And how, after the overthrow and execution of her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979, she came into her own as a political figure who was loved and reviled in equal measure, sentiments not unlike those inspired by India’s Nehru-Gandhi family.
“I admired her bravery,” Bennett-Jones says when asked about his portrayal of Bhutto. “But I had [earlier] also written about her corruption which, obviously, I did not admire. Having said that, I don’t think the corruption should be the only prism through which her life is seen. We discussed having an episode on her corruption and had we had more time to make it, we probably would have.” He added that the BBC was initially hesitant to commission the series but once it was done, agreed to host it on the World Service platform.
The podcast focuses on key events that led to Bhutto’s return to Pakistan in the hope of re-entering national politics and the fatal consequences of that decision. Using forensic reports and documents now made public, interviews with the Bhutto-Zardari family, members of the legal and intelligence community in Pakistan, American diplomats, and a long paper trail, Bennett-Jones reconstructs the road to Rawalpindi and the convoluted paths that led away from the incident towards Kandahar and the Taliban.
Listeners are treated to some incredible archival soundbytes, including excerpts from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s campaign speeches. We hear Bhutto explain her decision to begin campaigning despite knowing full well that, “elements within… security apparatuses… are people who want me out of the way”. Bennett-Jones does a meticulous job of probing that alleged nexus between the deep state and those “elements”.
Telling the story in a podcast series was “more satisfactory,” says Bennett-Jones. “It wasn’t perfect but I consider it a solid piece of work that unlike most journalism actually said something… I have done daily journalism for years and, while it has its place, have decided to leave it to others. More substantial projects such as this seem to me to be more worthwhile.”
(A fortnightly series on podcasts.)
The Hyderabad-based writer and academic is a neatnik fighting a losing battle with the clutter in her head.