On December 27, 2007, as Benazir Bhutto stood from the sun roof of her white Toyota Land Cruiser to wave to a waiting crowd of people as she left Rawalpindi’s main public ground, the historic Liaquat Bagh, after speaking at an election rally, a gunman in the crowd pulled out a pistol. From a distance of two to three meters on the left side of the barely moving vehicle, he took aim and fired three shots at the Pakistan People’s Party leader. It was exactly 5.14 p.m. At the second shot, Ms. Bhutto’s white dupatta and her hair flick upward, but there is no evidence to link the bullet to the movement. At the third, she starts to move down the vehicle. The gunman, meanwhile, lowers his gun, looks down, and detonates explosives strapped to his body.
Less than a second
The three shots, according to a video analysis by Scotland Yard now quoted in a report by the UN Commission of Inquiry into the Facts and Circumstances of Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination, were fired in less than one second. It took just 1.6 seconds from the time of the first shot to the detonation of the bomb.
It seems incredible now that the entire episode took less than two seconds. As I play back the events of that evening in my mind’s eye, I can see it only in slow motion. I was at Liaquat Bagh that evening, waiting at a gate next to the VIP gate Benazir’s convoy used to exit the ground. A policeman shut the iron-bar gate just as I was about to step out with my friend Anees Jillani, a Supreme Court lawyer who accompanied me to the rally.
“A little patience,” the policeman said, he would reopen it in a couple of minutes after the convoy left. A small crowd of people was around us, most of them women, maybe from the women’s wing of the PPP. The departing convoy was not in view; it had yet to make the right turn on to the road. But I could see people crowding on the road. They were obviously slowing down the convoy, and I remember thinking, this is going to take longer than the cop said.
Within no time, I heard the shots. “Firecrackers,” I thought in that instant, even as I realised they were not. “Gunshots,” Anees said, taking the word out of my mouth. And just then, amid sounds of big vehicles suddenly revving up and squealing tyres, a huge ball of fire and debris went up in the air and the sound of an explosion. No mistaking a bomb blast for anything else. A dismembered head fell right outside the gate where I stood, along with flying bits of flesh, blood, and burnt clothing among other things.
The UN report does not say who killed Benazir. That was not the inquiry’s mandate. But its reconstruction of the crime - including the political events in Pakistan that led up to it, and the government’s response to it - is so detailed and precise, that by itself it provides valuable leads.
On the basis of its report, the Commission has recommended that the government carry out an investigation taking into account that a 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” - the network of military, intelligence agencies, certain politicians, government officials and business interests - that wields the real power in Pakistan. The report elaborates on the links between all these actors. It dwells at length on ties between the ISI and Islamist militant, and says it was the knowledge of these links that made Benazir fear for her life most.
Washing the streets
It unequivocally blames the Musharraf regime for not providing Benazir the security that she needed and, after she was killed, for an investigation that was far from professional. The Commission has devoted much effort to reconstructing the egregious decision not to carry out a post-mortem on Benazir and the infamous “hosing” incident, in which fire engines washed down the crime scene, sending crucial evidence flowing down the gutters of Rawalpindi.
I saw the first of the fire engines turning in towards the bomb site just as Anees and I were leaving Liaquat Bagh. Winter’s early dusk had swiftly turned into a dark evening. We were still not aware that Benazir had died in the attack. PPP workers at the scene of the attack, some with blood flowing down their faces and barely coherent, had told us she had escaped unhurt. As I wondered what there was for a fire engine to do, I heard Anees say, “They’re going to wash the place.”
It immediately brought to mind a similar hosing down after the assassination of Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa in Colombo in 1993.
In this instance, the UN Commission has concluded, damagingly for the Pakistan Army, that the hosing could not have been ordered by the police on its own and, most likely, that the then head of military intelligence was behind it.
Indeed, the entire 70-page UN report is a powerful indictment of the military and Pakistan’s intelligence services, and their entrenched hold on the country. Working within its limited mandate of ascertaining the facts and circumstances of the assassination, the three-member Commission of Inquiry, headed by Heraldo Munoz, Chile’s top diplomat to the UN, has come up with a gripping tale of who really runs Pakistan, about a military ruler, his powerful international backers, the shady deals politicians make with the military, of military/intelligence links with extremists and militant groups, Al Qaeda, Taliban Kashmir and jihad. Were it not about a real country, real people and a tragically real assassination, you could be forgiven for mistaking the report for the outline of a new John Le Carre. It is, as book reviewers are so fond of saying, “unputdownable”, even for those who know the story.
As I read the report, a memory came back to me from the half-light of the bomb site. I was standing in the middle of all the blood and destruction, trying to talk to survivors, the unbearable smell of burnt flesh and explosives in the air. Suddenly, two men appeared from behind me. They were my regular minders from the Inter-Services Intelligence. “Are you okay, madam?” one of them asked. I should have been touched at this display of concern. But it made me laugh. Two spooks deployed to chase an Indian journalist full-time, when horses were bolting gleefully all over the country.
Excerpts from the Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry
“The Commission has reviewed one Interior Ministry letter, dated 22 October 2007, …[ordering provincial governments] to provide stringent and specific security measures for Messrs. Shaukat Aziz1 and Chaudhry Shujat Hussain as ex-prime ministers. Both were …General Musharraf’s close allies…Despite a search of their archives, at the request of the Commission, Punjab provincial authorities could not find a similar directive from federal authorities in the case of Ms. Bhutto, also an ex-prime minister …The Commission finds it inexcusable that federal authorities did not issue a similarly clear directive as the 22 October directive for ex-Prime Ministers Aziz and Hussain to protect Ms. Bhutto”.
“Major Imtiaz was the only permanent government-provided security officer for Ms. Bhutto…[He] did not receive adequate support from the government to carry out his duties effectively. No support staff was assigned to him by the government; nor did it accede to many of his specific requests [for security equipment such as jammers and vehicles].”
The Security Plan provided for two security cordons at the PPP event: an inner cordon securing Liaquat Bagh and an outer cordon covering the area surrounding Liaquat Bagh, including Liaquat and Murree Roads. According to the plan 1,371 police officers were to be deployed at Liaquat Bagh. Three walk-through gates with metal detectors were placed at the public entrances to the park … The Commission finds that the Security Plan was flawed as it placed inadequate focus on Ms Bhutto’s protection and concentrated more on the deployment of police for crowd control. Furthermore, it was not implemented properly.”
“The plan also provided for the deployment of police constables on the rooftops of the buildings surrounding Liaquat Bagh. According to the plan, these constables were supposed to carry automatic rifles and binoculars. However, none of the seven constables interviewed by the Commission had binoculars; they were not even aware that they were supposed to have carried them…”
“According to SP Khurram and other senior Rawalpindi police officials, including some who were not present at the scene, hosing down the crime scene was a necessary crowd control measure. They claim that some at the scene, mainly PPP supporters, were very upset when they learned that Ms Bhutto had died and that some supporters were dipping their hands into the blood on the ground, believing it to be Ms Bhutto’s, and rubbing it on themselves. SP Khurram asserted that the PPP supporters could have become disruptive. Therefore, the police needed to wash away the blood from the scene as a public order measure.”
“Some senior Pakistani police officials … point out that, while the deliberate hosing down of a scene is unheard of in police practice, it has occurred on a few occasions, in each case when the military has been the target of such attacks and the crime scene was managed by the military directly…The police officials who point out this pattern saw it as further indication that the military was involved in having the crime scene hosed down.
“Ms. Bhutto’s own concerns about threats to her by Al-Qaeda and other militants resulted in part from her knowledge of their links with people who had worked with or been assets of the ISI. She feared that the authorities could activate these connections, using radical Islamists to harm her, while hiding their own role in any attack.”