Benazir Bhutto was brought back to Pakistan from exile as part of an international deal. Then she was killed — and all traces of evidence were immediately swept away. Christina Lamb follows the clues to her killers in London, Karachi and Washington
LONDON: Across fields of cotton and baked mud in the village of Garhi Khuda Bakhsh in southern Pakistan rises a white marble mausoleum with Mughal-style cones that shimmer in the heat. Inside lie four bodies ó a father and his three children ó all murdered over a 30-year span. The father was hanged by a military dictator, one son poisoned and one son shot, both by unknown assailants. The daughter was still building the mausoleum when she, too, was assassinated. Her killing was captured on live television, yet who did it ó as well as how ó remains a mystery.
Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan’s most important political figure, the leading female politician in the Islamic world, an Oxford and Harvard graduate who was the West’s best hope of tackling terrorism. Yet 2ž years on, and despite a $5m United Nations commission of inquiry, her murder remains unresolved.
Almost every Pakistani has a theory about who did it; practically nobody expects to find out. Pakistan’s history is dotted with unexplained political assassinations, but this time there was an unexpected twist. Bhutto’s widowed husband ended up as president, with all the government apparatus at his disposal. One might think that for once there was a good chance of establishing a culprit. Instead he had called in the UN to investigate, claiming “This thing is bigger than us.”
I had my own reasons for wanting answers. I’d known Bibi, as friends called her, since 1987, when her kind wedding invitation to a 21-year-old led to me falling in love with her country and starting a life as a foreign correspondent, covering both her spells as prime minister. I was with her on the truck in Karachi the first time they tried to kill her: two bombs killed 150 people, but she survived. Ten weeks later, just after 5 pm on December 27, 2007, they succeeded. As Bhutto left an election rally in Liaquat Park, Rawalpindi, she stood up through the sunroof of her armoured car to wave. Moments later she was dead, blood gushing from a wound to her temple, as a suicide bomber exploded himself in the crowd.
Bhutto’s action had been foolhardy when she knew there were people out to kill her, and her death sadly unsurprising in a family that has sacrificed everything for politics. What was less explicable was what happened next. “Everything was manipulated,” says Athar Minallah, a leading lawyer who sits on the board of the Rawalpindi hospital where Bhutto was taken. “The evidence was washed away and no autopsy or investigation allowed. As a lawyer I can’t come to any conclusion, but it’s all too sinister to believe there wasn’t mala fide in this.”
Despite being warned off by friends in the Pakistani media, I travelled from London to Dubai, Karachi to Kabul, Waziristan to Washington, asking questions from those involved, many of whom had never spoken out before. If ever there was a death foretold, this was it. Bhutto’s days were numbered from the time she decided to end eight years in exile in Dubai and return home, following a deal with President Pervez Musharraf backed by the US and Britain.
“We might as well have painted a bull’s-eye target on her head,” admitted a British Foreign Office minister involved in the negotiations.
On October 16, the day before she was due to fly to Pakistan, she was warned by UAE and Saudi intelligence of a plot to kill her. She immediately wrote to Musharraf naming three suspects: Pervez Elahi, then chief minister of Punjab; General Hameed Gul, the retired head of Pakistan’s military intelligence, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI); and Brigadier Ejaz Shah, the former head of the Intelligence Bureau (IB). But there was no changing her mind. “The time of life is written and the time of death is written,” she insisted.
When the plane landed at Karachi and Bhutto came down the steps, she could not hold back the tears. But her security people were worried. The jammers promised by the Pakistan government to impede remote-control bombs were not working. Bhutto refused to go behind the special bulletproof screen in her bus that would separate her from her people. Eventually, she went to the armoured compartment on the lower deck to work on her speech. It was nearly midnight and we had been on the bus nine hours when the first blast came, throwing us to the ground. Moments later came a second, much larger, blast. There was silence, then screams, sirens and little pieces fluttering down like black snowflakes: bits of charred skin.
Bhutto had no doubt who was behind it. She emailed Mark Siegel on October 26: “Nothing will God-willing happen. Just wanted u to know if it does I will hold Musharraf responsible.”
She also called Musharraf. “He told her, I warned you not to come back until after the elections,’ and threatened her, ëI’ll only protect you if you’re nice to me,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Bhutto aide who was living in the US and is now Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington.
Instead of stepping up her security, it was reduced. She was even told not to travel in vehicles with tinted windows, as this was against the law of the local government.
She appealed to the American and British officials who had helped negotiate her return. “I called everyone,” said Haqqani. “I even got the US ambassador in Pakistan, Anne Patterson, to visit her.” It did not go well. “Patterson wasn’t nice to her,” said Bhutto’s cousin and confidant, Tariq Islam. “She harped on, ëYou must not talk against Musharraf.’ The Americans never trusted her. It was a marriage of convenience.”
In November, Bhutto returned to Dubai for a few days. Her daughters believe she knew then she would not see them again. “She kept on telling us life is in God’s hands,” said her youngest, Asifa, interviewed for Bhutto, a film about her mother’s life that opens in June. “It was going to be my 18th birthday in January, and she said she wanted to wish me happy birthday in advance,” said her older daughter, Bakhtawar. “I said, Don’t wish me in advance, wish me then.”
The next morning, after her mother left, she found a be-ribboned box containing a silver jaguar head on a pendant. A note wished her “Happy birthday, all my love, Mummy”.
Back in Pakistan, on December 26, the day before the Rawalpindi rally, she addressed a public meeting in Peshawar and a suspected suicide bomber was caught trying to get in.
Despite the late night, Bhutto was up early sending emails, including one to Peter Galbraith asking him to contact his friend, the Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, to send some of his jammers.
Back at her Islamabad home for a light lunch, she called her political secretary, Naheed Khan, to sit with her. Around 2 pm, the two women climbed into her armoured, white Toyota Land Cruiser with an entourage of five men, including Amin Fahim, who had led her party while she was in exile, and Senator Safdar Abbasi, Naheed’s husband and also a long-time aide.
As they left Islamabad for Rawalpindi, passers-by waved at the motorcade. In front was a blue police van and a black Mercedes containing her security chief and other officials. Behind were two pick-up trucks of her bodyguards.
As they drove out of the back of the park with dusk falling, the gates were opened. The crowd flooded out and gathered round her chanting “Jiye Bhutto” [long live Bhutto], “Wazir-i-azam Benazir” [prime minister Benazir]. She stood up, climbing on the seat so that she could be seen.
Then they heard shooting. “Suddenly I felt some pressure, she had fallen on me,” said Naheed. She sobs as she recalls cradling Bhutto’s bleeding head. “She was completely unconscious, her blood seeping over me. That scene is still going on in front of me two years on,” she said.
All those in the car, and her spokeswoman Sherry Rehman, in the car behind, insist that Bhutto fell first, then a bomb went off. “As soon as she ducked down, after three to four seconds there was a bomb blast,” said Naheed. Safdar checked Bhutto’s pulse. “There was nothing.”
A bodyguard shouted “Move the car!” but the left tyres had burst in the blast. The backup car had mysteriously disappeared, so the bodyguard carried her into Sherry Rehman’s 4×4 and they rushed to Rawalpindi general hospital.
At the hospital, doctors tried to resuscitate her. Sherry Rehman describes the chaos of bloodied, injured and dead victims being brought in and party workers crowding the building. Rehman found Naheed and Makhdoom Fahim in a state of shock. “The hospital wanted us to get the body out,” she said. “The whole place was heaving with people. Makhdoom and I created a diversion by driving out so they could get the body out without supporters realising. It didn’t occur to us to demand the medical report. I was sure she was shot, I heard the shots, then our heads being shoved down in the drill we’d had since Karachi, then the boom of the bomb. We never thought anyone would contradict this.”
In Dubai, Bhutto’s family had been watching on television. “All we knew was something had happened,” said Zardari. “I said, ëArrange a plane.’ When I came back into the room, the TV was announcing she was dead.” Bhutto’s body was placed in a makeshift plywood coffin and taken to the nearby military airbase of Chaklala.
Around 1 am, the family arrived, and both they and the coffin were flown to Moenjodaro in Sindh, to drive through the night to Bhutto’s ancestral home town of Naudero. On December 30, just three days after her death, Zardari summoned a meeting of the party’s central executive committee. He asked their son, Bilawal, to read out a handwritten letter from Bhutto to the PPP. It stated: “I would like my husband, Asif Ali Zardari, to lead you in this interim period until you and he decide what is best. I say this because he is a man of courage and honour.”
Zardari told me afterwards he had no idea she had drawn up such a will. “The day her remains came to Naudero, a person came from Dubai and said, I have this document Madam left with me.” He said he did not know the person.
It was dated October 16, two days before Bhutto returned to Pakistan. “That was the day she’d been warned not to go back,” Zardari said, “and she wrote that letter to Musharraf showing apprehensions about certain people.”
Still in shock, nobody on the party’s executive questioned the document. Afterwards, Fahim, the party’s former leader, who had expected to take over, told me he was astonished that Bhutto would hand the party over to Zardari. Known in Pakistan as Mr Ten Per Cent, his alleged corruption was thought to be largely responsible for the demise of both Bhutto’s governments. Torn apart with grief, Naheed was also too stunned to say anything. “She never mentioned it [the will] to me, nor had I seen it,” she told me.
Back in Islamabad, the Musharraf government appeared to be in panic. Within an hour of the attack the scene had been washed down with high-pressure hoses, wiping out almost all the evidence. Saud Aziz, then chief of Rawalpindi police, said he issued these orders after receiving a phone call from a close associate of Musharraf. The interior ministry said they were worried about “vultures picking up body parts”.
This was in stark contrast to what had happened after two assassination attempts on Musharraf in the same city, when the area had been sealed off for weeks.
At 5pm on Friday December 28, less than 24 hours after her death, Brigadier Javed Cheema, the interior ministry spokesman, held a press conference. He said the hospital report showed Bhutto had been killed by striking the lever of the sunroof as she ducked to avoid the bomb. “There was no bullet or metal shrapnel found in the injury,” he said.
He also said intelligence services had intercepted a call from Baitullah Mehsud, head of the Pakistani Taliban, proving he was behind it. A transcript was later made available ó though no audiotape ó on which the militant leader is self-congratulatory and gives away his location. A week later, journalists including myself were called in to our respective embassies to be told that MI6 and the CIA had authenticated the transcript and were convinced Baitullah had carried out the attack. Baitullah insisted he was not responsible. “I strongly deny it,” he said via his spokesman, Maulvi Omar. “Tribal people have their own customs. We don’t strike women.”
In years of reporting on Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, never once had I known them not take responsibility for something. Moreover, Bhutto had told me that after the Karachi attack, Baitullah had sent a message saying: “Identify your enemy. I’m not your foe.”
Meanwhile, footage had emerged in which a clean-shaven man in dark glasses was clearly visible waving a gun and firing three shots. A TV station had filmed bullets lying on the ground. Other footage showed Bhutto’s chief bodyguard, Khalid Shahenshah, gesticulating strangely from the stage as Bhutto left.
Aside from Bhutto, 22 others were killed in the attack. Family members told Pakistani media that some had bullet wounds. But no autopsies were carried out, even though they are required by law.
I started my own investigation in the sprawling port city of Karachi on the basis that whoever had tried to kill her there on October 17 was probably the same person that eventually got her.
That bombing was Pakistan’s most lethal terrorist attack, yet I was shocked to find from the local police chief that there was no investigation under way.
Fatima was just 14 in September 1996 when her father, Murtaza, the elder of Benazir’s two brothers, was gunned down on the street, along with six of his men. The murder scene was also washed clean before investigators could arrive.
Bhutto’s friends and family say she was devastated by Murtaza’s death. Her cousin Tariq Islam accompanied her to the morgue in Karachi. “We went to the cold room where his blood-soaked body was and she collapsed, put her head between his feet and cried and howled, You’re my baby brother, don’t do this to me.”
Bhutto, who was prime minister at the time, called in a Scotland Yard team to investigate and asked Islam to be the liaison person. “Even though it was her government, they were stymied at every turn,” he said. “They wanted to see the scene, but within hours it had been pressure-washed. They wanted to see the vehicle in which Murtaza’s body was flung and taken to hospital but were told it had been taken to a garage.”
Six weeks after the murder, a coup took place and Benazir was ousted as prime minister. Scotland Yard was sent home.
Following Benazir’s death, nobody has lost their job despite clear lapses in security and failures to investigate. Bhutto’s security chief, Rehman Malik, who disappeared with the backup car, is now interior minister and Zardari’s closest adviser. “My enemies are talking nonsense that I ran away,” he said when I asked why he left the spot. “I wasn’t a security officer that I had to be there. I’m not a guard or a gunman.” Musharraf’s interior secretary, Kamal Shah, is still in his post, though it was his ministry that put out the version of events Bhutto’s friends and family dispute. Saud Aziz, who ordered the roads to be washed, was transferred to Multan, the prime minister’s constituency, but was suspended last week following the UN report.
Then there is the unexplained shooting of Benazir’s bodyguard Khalid Shahenshah, who was also in the car the night of her killing. I tracked down his best friend, Mohammed Yarwar, a former US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent, who met me in a house full of caged snakes on a busy Karachi road. A student activist for the party, Shahenshah ran a grocery store in Connecticut and seems a strange choice as chief bodyguard. “We hung out in New York,” said Yarwar. “He had a connection with Zardari and got to know Benazir because he would drive her when she visited.”
Shahenshah was heading security at Bhutto’s residence in Karachi, Bilawal House, when, on July 22, 2008, Yarwar got a panicked call from one of his guards, who was outside his friend’s house. “He was screaming, There’s firing going on!”
The guard later told him that Shahenshah had arrived home and got out of his car outside the gate. A small car approached with three men inside who began firing. “They shot 62 rounds, of which seven bullets hit Khalid,” said Yarwar. The car was later abandoned. Yarwar denied rumours that it was a gangland killing. “There was no proper investigation,” he said. “People say he might have known something about Benazir’s death. If he did, he never told me: all he ever said was that she was definitely shot. But I don’t like it. I’ve quit the PPP.”
Fear is tangible when I start asking about Benazir’s death, something the UN commission noted, describing themselves as “mystified by the efforts of certain high-ranking government authorities to obstruct access”.
I hailed a cab to take me to Rawalpindi’s police headquarters and found the charming chief police officer, Rao Iqbal. When I asked what was the usual procedure after a bombing, he said: “Our priority is to get life back to normal and remove all the rubble, but after collecting the evidence, not before.” Why did this not happen after Bhutto’s death? “The orders may have come through the mouth of CPO Saud Aziz, but it was a government agency that ordered the washing, not a policeman,” he replied, adding: “In my view it should not have been washed.”
As a result, they collected only 23 pieces of evidence, in a case where there would normally be thousands. One of the pieces was her car, and that had also been washed of any evidence. The UN commission pulled no punches, stating: “The failure of the police to investigate effectively Ms Bhutto’s assassination was deliberate.”
Police did find the blown-off face of the suicide bomber, who they say was a 15-year-old boy, on a roof. And to my surprise they told me they have five suspects in custody picked up in 2008, and five more they plan to arrest. They believe they were recruited from Madrassahs and part of a team sent to target Bhutto in different cities ó but they did not seem to be interested in who had sent them.
The lack of evidence has made it very difficult to establish how Bhutto died. Under pressure, Musharraf called in Scotland Yard to investigate her death. They backed his government’s version that Bhutto died after hitting her head, rather than from an assassin’s bullet. Yet every single person in her car insists she fell before the blast.
I went to the hospital hoping to see Professor Mussadiq, who led attempts to resuscitate Bhutto. I was first refused entry, then told he was at the Holy Family hospital. When I got there, they told me he was not at work. Eventually I met one of the other doctors who attended her; he would only speak off the record.
“Our main concern was saving her life, not what caused the injury, because that is done in an autopsy,” he said. “We all thought she had been shot.” Because she was an emergency patient, the medical team had made no official report, just clinical notes. They were horrified then when the interior-ministry spokesman held the press conference in which he cited their report, attributing the cause of death to hitting the lever of the sunroof. “They were very perturbed,” said Athar Minallah, the lawyer who sits on the hospital board. “When they couldn’t revive her, they told the police chief three times there needed to be an autopsy. He was constantly on the phone to someone else and refused, even though by law it’s mandatory.”
If how Bhutto died cannot be properly established, it seems unlikely we will ever find out who did it. In August last year, Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban suspect, was killed by an American drone.
The person fingered by Bhutto, Musharraf, now lives in exile in London, accompanied everywhere by six Scotland Yard officers. Before Christmas I met him at a dinner at the home of a mutual Pakistani friend, where he lounged on the sofa, drinking whisky, smoking a fat cigar and handing out £50 notes to the singers.
When a reporter asked him if he had blood on his hands, he retorted that the question was “below my dignity”, going on to say: “My family is not a family which believes in killing people. For standing up outside the car I think she was to blame — nobody else. Responsibility is hers.” The News