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Benazir’s Murder is Still a Mystery

December 27, 2008
Remembering Benazir

Remembering Benazir

That’s quite an interesting article by Shakeel Anjum…!

The chances of charismatic former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination remaining unresolved, like other high-profile murder cases in the country’s chequered history, may appear to be high but the investigators probing the case seem to have untangled the mystery and the progress being made may still take them to some conclusive outcome.

People privy to the proceedings and progress in the investigations confided to The News that unravelling of the mystery shrouding the shocking crime could lead to startling revelations, if ever made public, with serious political implications.

“Some of the leads that we have obtained from the entangled evidence, both physical as well as circumstantial, guide us to certain personalities but any disclosures at this stage might cause extremely serious repercussions,” one member of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) told The News.

“There is no doubt that we are in possession of highly sensitive information that our investigations have led us to and we have reason to believe that any premature exposure of this information would open up a Pandora’s Box that would be difficult to handle. We don’t want to take a bite that we may find difficult to chew at the end.

“So, we have to be patient for a while before making any conclusive assertions.

However, I would say that there have been stages in the course of the investigation, where we felt it was almost impossible to proceed any further,” the source told The News on condition of anonymity.

Certain points have already been widely discussed in the public, and one of these is the ‘elimination’ of two very important persons whose statements would have been extremely useful for the investigators.

One is the death of Ms Nahid Bhutto, a cousin of the late Benazir Bhutto, in a road accident near Hyderabad on her way

to Karachi from Naudero, less than a week after the tragic assassination of the then-PPP chairperson.

Insiders claim while cousin Nahid Bhutto was busy talking to somebody in Australia over telephone from the Naudero house in Larkana after the burial of Benazir Bhutto, she is believed to have touched upon something sensitive, overheard by somebody present there but without her knowledge.

As soon as she realised the presence of the other person, Ms Nahid quickly wrapped up her conversation, saying she would discuss the matter on her arrival in Karachi the next day. She never arrived as intended.

She was killed in a road accident near Hyderabad while going to Karachi! Who was the person present in the room from where Ms Nahid was making the phone call is an important question for the investigators. Sources claimed the suspects were too powerful to be made part of the investigations. So, there is a stumbling block being confronted by the investigators, at this point at least.

A second hurdle to the probe is the assassination of Khalid Shehanshah, the personal bodyguard of Ms Bhutto and a key eyewitness to the tragedy. Circles close to Ms Bhutto insist Khalid Shehanshah, who had deep connections with the underworld, was ‘specially deputed’ as personal bodyguard of Ms Bhutto when she decided to return to the country from her prolonged self-exile on Oct 18, 2007.

He stayed close to Bhutto wherever she went after her return and was always in the back of the vehicle that Ms Bhutto rode during her election campaign. It will be instructive to recall that his behaviour on the stage the day Ms Bhutto delivered her last speech at Liaquat Bagh had been questioned but the issue was tactfully hushed up.

The investigators believe that he was in the know of important facts concerning the assassination of the 54-year-old leader. His murder was part of a larger scheme to silence anybody who could become a source of vital information that would help resolve the mystery shrouding the assassination.

Another very interesting aspect that surfaced during the investigations by The News was the late-night meeting of the head of an intelligence agency with Ms Bhutto. Reliable sources said the gentleman came to meet Ms Bhutto at around 1:30 am on the night of Dec 26 (early hours of Dec 27) and went straight into the meeting, also attended by Rehman Malik, then security adviser to the former premier.

One source privy to the discussions claimed the spy chief categorically told Ms Bhutto not to go to Liaquat Bagh to address the rally. He said credible information had been received that there would be an assassination attempt on her life during the public meeting.

“Benazir was caught in two minds for some moments but Rehman Malik forcefully refused to take that advice. He (Rehman Malik) told the gentleman: Benazir cannot sit in confinement. She is a leader and she has to address tomorrow’s rally because that is very important,” the source said. And then the intelligence boss left.

When asked whether the then-ISI chief, Lt-Gen Nadeem Taj, met Benazir on the eve of the tragedy (in fact in the wee hours of Dec 27 at around 1:30 am) and told her about the threat to her life and advised her not to attend the rally, Adviser on Interior Rehman Malik, who was operating as the chief security adviser of Benazir as she was travelling all over the country in connection with her party’s election campaign, told The News that the meeting did take place. “Yes. The meeting did take place. I was part of the meeting. The discussion remained confined to political matters. The issue of any life threat to Benazir or concerns about her security during the next morning’s public rally (in Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi) did not figure in the meeting,” Rehman Malik asserted.

After the rally was over and Bhutto boarded her vehicle, she asked Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who always sat on the right-hand side of the PPP chairperson, to exchange seats with her political secretary Naheed Khan. Amin Fahim obliged without uttering a word.

Immediately, after taking her seat in the vehicle, a Toyota Land Cruiser jeep provided by a very influential property developer of the country, Ms Bhutto asked Naheed Khan to contact Nawaz Sharif, as she came to know about an attack on his rally on the Islamabad Highway. Some people were reportedly killed in the assault. While Naheed Khan was dialling Sharif’s number on her cell phone, a crowd came in front of the vehicle and prevented it from moving any further.

By the time Naheed Khan had almost dialled Sharif’s number and was waiting for the call to be connected on her Blackberry cell phone, Ms Bhutto placed her palm on the telephone and told her to call him later. Then she emerged from the sunroof of the jeep to wave to the cheering crowd.

She had hardly started waving when the assassin fired at her at least three times. Evidently, two bullets hit her on the side of her head, slightly above temple. As she slumped back inside the vehicle and as soon as she hit the seat, a suicide bomber blew himself up. Collapsing inside the vehicle, she fell in the lap of Ms Naheed Khan, away from Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who was sitting on her left.

Sources informed The News that Dr Safdar Abbasi, sitting on the backseat of the vehicle, immediately checked Bhutto’s pulse, as she lay motionless in the lap of Naheed Khan. He was horrified because there was no sign of life. He knew she had died instantly, before falling in the lap of Naheed Khan. However, to prevent panic, he told Naheed Khan to press the wound hard to prevent loss of blood. The fellow knew fully well his leader had already been dead.

Another intriguing factor was the early departure of the vehicle used by Rehman Malik, Senator Babar Awan and Farhatullah Babar along with a couple of bodyguards. In the past, this vehicle had always tailed Benazir’s car, never leaving enough space that might allow another vehicle to come between them. But on that particular day, they abandoned Benazir and dashed towards Islamabad. Even when they were informed of the blast (suicide attack), Rehman Malik told the driver to keep driving towards F-8, informing the other occupants that Benazir was OK and that she was following in her vehicle.

It was only after reaching the Zardari House in F-8 that Babar Awan and Farhatullah Babar came to know of the real situation and returned to the central hospital. But Rehman Malik stayed back at the Zardari House.

When asked why he did not go straight to the Rawalpindi General Hospital and instead rushed towards the Zardari House in Islamabad, Rehman Malik claimed that he did go to the hospital first.

“When I reached the hospital, I saw people crying. I saw Naheed Khan in the arms of another lady, crying her heart out. I could not take any more and returned to Islamabad,” Rehman Malik said.

Surprisingly enough, when the numbing tragedy happened, there was no other vehicle either in front of Benazir’s jeep or behind it! The vehicle that was supposed to follow Benazir’s jeep had already abandoned her. There was no police escort in front of Benazir’s vehicle to clear the way, something that enabled the people to come in front of the vehicle, forcing the driver to stop.

The driver of Benazir’s vehicle — though panic-stricken — kept his senses under control and continued to drive the badly-damaged vehicle. However, after about a kilometre’s drive, near the entrance to the Committee Chowk underpass, they found Sherry Rehman’s vehicle parked on the kerb, with only the driver behind the wheel, waiting for other occupants. They quickly shifted the injured, or by then dead, Benazir in that vehicle to the General Hospital.

Meanwhile, three VVIP women of the party were seen madly running towards the Rawalpindi Press Club, carrying their sandals in hands in a bid to escape from the scene. One of them later turned up at the General Hospital, looking shocked and dazed and mourning the death of her leader.

Another intriguing aspect was that the Rawalpindi police neither held any meeting to review the law and order situation nor made necessary security arrangements for the important event, which took place soon after a bomb exploded outside the venue of a public meeting addressed by Ms Bhutto in Peshawar. The police also had information regarding threats to the life of the PPP leader.

Even more interesting was the fact that nobody has so far bothered to ask the senior superintendent of police (operations) as to why he was in a hurry mopping up the assassination scene, or who ordered the action while the site should have been cordoned off to facilitate the investigators looking for clues — a routine exercise after any murder, more so after such an enormous and historic killing.

All said and done, last year’s slaying of the two-time prime minister remains an unsolved mystery. Although, her party leaders and security officials have been harping on their seriousness about resolving the whodunit, a UN probe into her killing is yet to be initiated. With the scene of murder hosed down in no time, one wonders what a United Nations team would accomplish after all these months of efforts to unmask the assailants.

Along with Makhdoom Amin Fahim and Naheed Khan, Khalid Shehanshah was also present in the vehicle of Benazir Bhutto, assassinated right in front of Liaquat Bagh. In charge of her security, Shehanshah was one of the closest aides to Benazir Bhutto. After her murder, he was tasked with the security of Bilawal House. He also fell to the bullets of unidentified assailants on his way home from Bilawal House.

What exactly he knew and why he was eliminated are the questions agitating the minds of people. Some are trying to divert attention from his killing by saying he had connections with the underworld dons, who might have orchestrated his murder. But how could the dons accomplish such a folly when Shehanshah was the security officer of the country’s most powerful person?

Background interviews with knowledgeable quarters and investigation by The News reveal various mind-boggling things that followed soon after a jubilant Benazir came out of Liaquat Bagh at the conclusion of what was widely billed as a successful election rally. She was palpably overjoyed, glowing in the success of the rally. All the way to her ‘bomb-proof vehicle’, she wore a broad smile while waving to the cheering and slogan-chanting supporters.

She embarked the vehicle and for some reason after asking Naheed Khan and Makhdoom Amin Fahim to exchange seats, sat in the middle. Khalid Shehanshah and Nasir took the rear seat while Safdar Abbasi sat opposite to them.

For unknown reasons, the vehicle took a U-turn on the College Road to head back towards the Murree Road instead of plying the route chosen for her return to Islamabad. According to the security plan already finalised, Benazir’s convoy was scheduled to return from the other way — first heading to Raja Bazaar and then taking the alternative route.

When asked why Benazir’s vehicle turned right instead of turning left, towards Gawalmandi, in accordance with the actual security plan, Rehman Malik said it was not in his knowledge why Benazir’s vehicle turned right instead of following the original security plan.

Rehman Malik said his vehicle was ahead of Benazir’s vehicle and further ahead was a police escort van.

Who changed the route and why the vehicle was returned to the Murree Road against the security plan remains a big question mark.

It remains unclear who were the people blocking the way of her vehicle. Equally perplexing is the question: where were the security people supposed to keep the passage of Benazir’s entourage clear for safe and speedy exit from the venue?

Then she handed over the portable microphone, asked Safdar Abbasi to shout ‘Jeay Bhutto’ and joined in raising the slogans while waving to the crowd. And that was precisely when the gunman pulled the trigger. Three shots were fired at her. One reportedly hit her in the temple and she slumped back on the seat, believed to be dead before she fell. She was in the middle of crying ‘Jeay Bhutto’ when hit by the bullet, a popular slogan that would be registered as her last words.

The gunshots were followed by a huge explosion, allegedly a suicide attack. Later, inquiries led many people and investigators to believe the bomb was exploded only to cover up the fact that she was killed by gunshots. According to sources, little attention was paid in the inquiries to ensuring serious effort at identifying the person who pulled out the gun and shot thrice at Benazir from such close range. How he managed to take such a precise aim while there was a huge crowd around the vehicle and one could hardly hold one’s ground, with people pushing and jostling in a mad rush, is mind-boggling.

There was hardly any query asked whether the assassin was also killed or he managed to escape.

No one knows who ordered the mopping up of the scene. Who were the police high-ups who issued the orders to wash up the crime scene but were never included in the investigations?

The Joint Investigation Team (JIT), constituted by the government to probe the incident, hurriedly came out with the conclusion that Benazir had died after her head hit the protruding lever of the roof that broke her skull. The JIT spent all its energies on proving this particular point, which was also announced by the director-general of the National Crisis Management Cell (NCMC) Brig (retd) Javed Iqbal Cheema at a press conference.

But another government agency investigating the assassination later insisted the earlier ‘conclusion’ was not correct as it proved the wound in Benazir’s head was almost 5mm deep and two centimetres in width — deep enough to crack open her brain membrane, as a result of which, part of her brain oozed out of the wound.

“All this evidence leads us to believe that she was hit slightly above her temple by a bullet, which ricocheted but did the fatal damage to her skull. The skull on the left side was crushed by the impact of the bullet and the depression was deep enough to damage the protective membrane of the brain. It is a proven fact that such damage needs an impact of at least 50 Newton force. A knock by the protruding sunroof lever could not cause that sort of damage to her skull. So, we have reason to conclude that it was one of the three bullets fired by the assassin that hit Benazir and killed her instantly,” a source privy to the investigations told The News.

However, the elements that wanted to hide the facts, instead of paying attention to the report of the country’s own investigation agency, called in the Scotland Yard police which could find nothing new and had to vet the earlier report submitted by the JIT. Surprisingly, nobody raised the basic questions as to who ordered cleaning of the crime scene.

By the same token, nobody asked why the original route plan was changed at the eleventh hour and the vehicle carrying Benazir was diverted towards the Murree Road. Also unasked is the query why there was no official security vehicle in front of and behind the jeep carrying her after the rally was over.

Now that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is in power, it is intriguing why the government has not made any effort to reinvestigate the case. The government did promise that a UN probe into Benazir’s death would be initiated, but there has since been complete silence on the part of the PPP government, baffling many.

This scribe contacted a number of individuals engaged at different levels of investigations into the case, and some of whom are still quietly working on it. They said the case could be resolved “only if there is a sincere will to resolve it and if there is a resolve to catch the culprits behind the most unfortunate assassination in the country’s history,” one of them remarked.

“There is enough proof which points towards those who had played a key role in the whole plot that culminated in her assassination. But nobody can dare make any demand to unveil the elements because all these players are holding powerful positions,” they confided.

“There is ample evidence available that could lead the investigators to the mastermind behind the plot. The evidence is scattered in bits and pieces but not hidden. What is required is only to collect these scattered pieces of the puzzle and put them together and that would easily complete the picture, exposing all those involved in this conspiracy, not only against a person, but against the nation,” they said.

“However, we have to bear in mind that the forces who want to keep the facts under wraps would never allow any such move. The assassination of one of the major players involved in the whole conspiracy in Karachi some time back has effectively sent out a strong warning to others and none would be willing to reveal the facts. At least, not for the time being,” they continued.

Today, it is exactly one year that the ‘Daughter of the East’ and the most popular leader of the country was assassinated. Today, the party of the late Benazir is in power. And yet, her assassination remains a mystery! The time to unravel the mystery will, however, come sooner than later and then we will know who killed the only hope the country had.

One year on, Benazir’s murder is still a mystery, but not so much
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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 7, 2009 10:50 am

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