A hard-hitting report

Published April 26, 2010

THE UN inquiry report on Benazir Bhutto's assassination may not be an eye-opener but it does put the record straight and fixes responsibility for the tragedy.

Responses to the report have been mixed. Some have been dismissive saying that it served no purpose and cost the government millions of dollars. In reality some $2m were spent on the report, with Pakistan contributing less than half the amount. It is a mere fraction of the amount that Pakistani authorities spent on hounding Benazir Bhutto to her grave. Detractors of President Zardari's coterie are demanding a full-fledged investigation into the PPP's security lapses, especially regarding the occupants of the black bullet-proof car meant to be a fallback vehicle in case of an attack. The car sped away before Bhutto left the venue.

While the UN report criticises PPP members for the security breach it does not pin the primary responsibility of Bhutto's security on them. But the media remains obsessed with this criticism. Only the hard-core jiyalas are calling for the trial and arrest of Musharraf and the key security officials identified in the report. The government has vaguely promised action while in response a smug Ejaz-ul-Haq has said that the civilian government could not even apprehend a brigadier, let alone a military president. He may be right for now. He also denounced family-dominated parties, but did not say a word against people in politics, owing to their family ties with the establishment.

This distressing irony has been brilliantly captured by the UN report. In muted terms it has concluded that the establishment in Pakistan can get away with murder. The UN report describes Pakistan's establishment as the de facto power structure that has as its permanent core the military high command and the intelligence agencies. It concludes that while Pakistan needs strong and effective intelligence agencies, their autonomy, pervasive reach and clandestine role in Pakistani life underlie many of the problems, omissions and commissions set out in this report.

As a parting shot, the commission recommends setting up an independent truth and reconciliation commission. Such a commission is bound to turn into a sham unless Pakistan's powerful establishment is not significantly marginalised and the civilian leadership challenges the disruptive forces.

The establishment has spawned politicians, turned briefless lawyers into legal experts and the custodians of justice, appointed dubious individuals as heads of educational institutions and elevated copywriters to the position of senior journalists. No wonder, there is no dearth of supplicants.

Woefully, civilian authorities share many of the establishment's failings, but lack its effectiveness and consistency. All political parties want to please politicians spawned by the establishment. They kowtow to military-civilian cliques. They are still bitten by the establishment but have not learnt to shy away. The tragic killing of Bhutto is a case in point.

Hardly any UN report is as precise as the one issued on the assassination of Bhutto. It goes through the list of all the suspects, Baitullah Mehsud, those accused by Bhutto, Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the establishment and Bhutto's family members. It cuts through a number of hypotheses offered without evidence and identifies two suspects — the militants and the ruling junta.

The report verifies the threats to Bhutto's life by Islamic militants that were communicated to her by authorities in Pakistan and abroad. However, the report also points out that Baitullah Mehsud never accepted responsibility for the attack on Bhutto in Karachi or Rawalpindi. It quotes credible sources who believe that there is a nexus between jihadi groups and the establishment, and that eventually it was the government in power that did not provide decent security to a former prime minister even when it knew there was a genuine threat to her life.

The report compares the directions given by the federal government to the provinces regarding the security of two former prime ministers just days before Bhutto's assassination. Such communications were sparse in her case. The report suggests that the Scotland Yard report was deliberately misquoted by the Punjab police and that much of its context was based on 'good faith'.

On the hosing down of the crime scene the commission categorically accuses CPO Saud Aziz of issuing the necessary instructions, also revealing that sources within the police had asserted that Aziz did not act on his own but was ordered to do so by Maj-Gen Nadeem Taj, former director general of the military intelligence.

The commission was told that Aziz was an experienced police officer and could not have committed this illegal act on his own. Although police officials pointed out that the deliberate hosing down of crime scenes is unheard of in police practice, this had been the case on the few occasions when the military had been the target of such attacks and the crime scene was managed directly by it.

The report also confirms that the decision to hold the press conference presided over by Brigadier Cheema of the interior ministry was made by Musharraf in a meeting held at Camp House. The press conference concluded prematurely that the cause of Bhutto's death was an accident.

The report discloses that the ISI was running a parallel investigation which was selectively shared with the police. The police were not even aware that the intelligence agencies were holding three suspects of the Karachi tragedy.

The law does not authorise intelligence agencies to investigate a crime or to arrest people but in Pakistan everything is kosher. On the other hand, the pretext of national security is used to deny adversaries their right to survive. Bhutto was denied permission to be accompanied by foreign security detail on her return.

The ball is squarely in the PPP government's court. An independent investigation is not an act of revenge. In fact, the absence of one will only add to the culture of impunity. It will weaken democratic forces and give the establishment greater power to play with more lives.

The writer is chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

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