Why it's unlikely that Benazir Bhutto’s assassination will ever get any closure
Almost 10 years ago, on 27 December 2007, former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by a 15-year-old suicide bomber as she addressed an election rally in Rawalpindi.
On 31 August, 10 years later, the five accused in the case, all members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP), have been acquitted by an anti-Terrorist court on the grounds that the evidence presented against them was either unsustainable or fake.
The court, however, sentenced two senior police officers - Saud Aziz, the then city police chief of Rawalpindi, and Khurram Shahzad, who was the SP of Rawal Town area where the terrorist attack occurred - to jail. Both have been held guilty of concealing information regarding the expected attack and for criminal negligence for ignoring threats to Benazir Bhutto’s life, for which they have been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Both have also got been sentenced to another seven years - to be served concurrently - for virtually destroying all the evidence at the crime scene.
The court went a step further and declared General Pervez Musharraf, who was Pakistan’s president in December 2007 after handing over the army chief’s baton to General Ashfaq Kiyani only a month before, a fugitive and charged him with murder in the case.
As he chose to not present himself before the court, Musharraf has been declared a proclaimed offender. The court ordered that his property to be seized and a perpetual arrest warrant to be issued against him.
This is not the first time that a Pakistani court has declared Musharraf as a proclaimed offender. Musharraf faces a number of cases, including for the murder of Baluchi leader Nawab Akbar Bugti, as also for treason for declaring an emergency and suspending the constitution in 2007.
In fact, in a case relating to the arrest of judges in 2007, when the Islamabad High Court ordered his arrest in April 2013 while he was physically present in court, his army guards whisked him away and later he has put under house arrest.
Will this verdict impact the future of the Peoples Party, Musharraf, besides the politics of Pakistan? Does it shed any light on the Pakistan judicial system?
Before seeking an answer, it would do well to take a peep at the circumstances that prevailed around the time of Benazir’s assassination.
From mid-2006, Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, who was in exile abroad, were in contact regarding the country’s political future. This was despite Musharraf’s strong personal dislike for her.
As Musharraf’s power waned in 2007 starting with the lawyers agitation because of the dismissal of Pakistan’s Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhari, the US intervened to hasten an understanding between Benazir and him so that the former could return to contest elections and Musharraf become a civilian president.
Musharraf agreed but was unhappy about her return.
During the Benazir murder trial, US journalist and a Benazir confidant Mark Siegal said that he was with her when she received a call from Musharraf in September 2007 when he threatened her with “dire consequences” if she returned to Pakistan.
When she said that he would be responsible for her security, he told her that would depend on their “mutual understanding”. A few weeks later, when she landed in Pakistan, terrorists attacked her procession from the airport. More than 130 persons died, but she escaped. Despite the attack, her security was not effectively enhanced by Musharraf. After the assassination, this naturally fuelled suspicion of the Musharraf’s negligence if not complicity.
In an extraordinary move, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government asked the UN to set up a committee to examine the circumstances of the assassination.
It concluded that there were “elements within the establishment” who were her “potential foes” and therefore held that the government was too quick to blame the TTP for the crime. It did not point to any individual or group as sponsors or organisers of the assassination but was scathing in its condemnation at the inadequate security arrangements and at the destruction of evidence of the crime.
Benazir Bhutto's family has criticised the judgment. Bilawal Bhutto tweeted that the release of terrorists is unacceptable and that all abettors should be punished.
Her daughter Aseefa even targeted Musharraf. While the family’s disappointment and the PPP’s anger is justified that none of the conspirators and instigators have paid for their involvement, it is doubtful if the people of provinces other than Sindh will be bothered by this judgement as the PPP’s political fortunes are at a low ebb.
The end of a career
Pervez Musharraf is in exile abroad. He shuttles between London and Dubai. He dreams of returning to Pakistan’s political life. That dream will remain just that. The truth is that no one wants him in Pakistan. He has no public following. His real base, the army, is embarrassed by him. He returned to Pakistan in 2013 despite the army’s advice not to do so.
His Napoleonic ambitions to make a comeback soon crumbled. He was left without power or influence. Soon, he was caught in a web of criminal cases and the army had to restrain Nawaz Sharif and discreetly the judiciary from putting him behind bars. It was only three years later that the generals succeeded in convincing him to leave Pakistan and persuaded the courts and Nawaz Sharif to agree to let him do so. That is where he now remains.
The acquittal of the accused also throws a spotlight on the criminal justice administration of Pakistan. During the trial, eight judges were changed. Clearly no judge till the present Ashgar Ali Khan was willing to take it to a conclusion. No wonder in terrorist cases Pakistan has had to go military courts - the Supreme Court itself has approved this system.
It is unlikely that Benazir Bhutto’s assassination will ever get any closure. It will go the way of killing of the country’s first Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan in October 1951 on the same grounds where Benazir met her end. The assassin Said Akbar was declared to be from Afghanistan by Pakistan, but the former denied the claim. He had links with the Pakistani police who killed him on the spot. The story behind that assassination was never revealed.
Very few leaders leave behind a legend of enduring potency which becomes a factor in the political life of a country. Benazir Bhutto, charismatic as she may have been, does not fall in that category.