There are more questions than answers in the United Nations report on the assassination of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, dissects security expert B Raman.
The report submitted by the three-member commission appointed by the United Nations to probe Benazir Bhutto's assassination was released on Thursday.
The Commission was headed by Chilean UN Ambassador Heraldo Munoz and included former Indonesian attorney general Marzuki Darusman and Ireland's former deputy police commissioner Peter Fitzgerald, who conducted an enquiry in 2005 that linked Syrian authorities to the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
President Asif Ali Zardari, who requested Commission's appointment, had sought a 15-day delay in the release of the report on the ground that some of the world leaders, who had cautioned Benazir, of likely threats to her life, had not been interviewed by the commission. While the Commission agreed to the delay it did not accept the contention of Zardari that the report was incomplete because it had not interviewed all those who had cautioned Benazir.
Before the report was released, The Nation of Pakistan (April 7) had reported that Zardari had sought a further delay in the release of the report -- if possible till June -- but his request was not accepted by the UN. No convincing explanation was given by the government as to why it repeatedly pressed for a delay in the report's release.
The reasons become obvious as one reads the report. The Commission has not only blamed the previous Musharraf government or failing to provide effective security to her despite having known that she faced a serious threat, but it has also condemned the Pakistani intelligence agencies for preventing an effective investigation into the assassination. It has not named any intelligence agency in particular, but it is evident that it was having the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in mind.
One expected the Commission to provide answers to the following questions:
1. Was effective security provided to Benazir after she returned to Pakistan from her political exile? If not, who was responsible for the failure?
2. What was the role of Rehman Malik, the present interior minister and a close confidante of Zardari, who had been nominated by Zardari as her security officer on behalf of the Pakistan People's Party? He was responsible for liaison on behalf of the party with the officials of the Musharraf government who were co-ordinating the security arrangements. It was alleged immediately after her assassination that Mallik was nowhere near the scene when she was killed by a suicide bomber. After attending the meeting addressed by her, he allegedly went home without accompanying her till her house as he was expected to. He came to know about the assassination from TV channels.
3.Who was responsible for the assassination?
4. How thorough has been the investigation into her assassination?
The Commission has blamed the officials of the Musharraf Government for failing to protect her and the intelligence and investigative agencies for the failure to properly investigate the assassination. To quote from the report:
# A range of government officials failed profoundly in their efforts first to protect Ms. Bhutto, and second to investigate with vigor all those responsible for her murder, not only in the execution of the attack, but also in its conception, planning and financing.
# "The suicide bombing that killed Bhutto could have been prevented.
# Bhutto faced threats from a number of sources, including Al Qaeda, the Taliban and local Islamic militants and potentially from Pakistan's ruling establishment. Two months before her death, she wrote a letter to Musharraf that identified three people she considered threats to her safety. But Pakistan's investigation failed to investigate Mehsud, Al Qaeda or other organisations that might have been involved. Investigators also dismissed the possibility of involvement by elements of the establishment, including the three persons identified by Ms. Bhutto as threats to her in her 16 October 2007 letter to General Musharraf.
# Police failed to preserve evidence at the scene of the bombing. The investigation suffered from a lack of commitment to identify and bring all of the perpetrators to justice. In particular, the pervasive reach of Pakistan's intelligence agencies left police unsure of how vigorously they ought to pursue actions, which they knew, as professionals, they should have taken.
# This pervasive involvement of intelligence agencies in diverse spheres, which is an open secret, has undermined the rule of law, distorted civilian-military relations and weakened some political and law enforcement institutions. At the same time, it has contributed to wide-spread public distrust in those institutions and fed a generalized political culture that thrives on competing conspiracy theories.
Munoz was even more devastating in his comments at a press conference in the UN headquarters. He said:
"It is clear that warnings were passed on, on various occasions, and Ms. Bhutto received also information in this regard from outside Pakistan. Nevertheless, what we have found is that the passing of information was not accompanied by commensurate measures to protect her, particularly given the fact that an assassination attempt had been made against her the very day she returned to Karachi."
"There was little or no focus placed on investigating those further up the hierarchy in the planning, the financing and the execution of the assassination."
"The Pakistani Government "failed in its primary responsibility to provide protection" to Bhutto on the day of her death, despite clear warnings of threats to her life."
Munoz refrained from directly accusing Musharraf, but he said a new, proper investigation into Bhutto's death needs to look at not only the possible involvement of Al Qaeda, Mehsud and the Taliban, but also the Pakistani establishment, including the military, intelligence agencies and the country's business elite.
"The criminal investigation of the assassination must include a focus on those who might have been involved," Munoz said. "It should follow all leads and explore all reasonable hypotheses."
The Commission has refrained from stating who was or who might have been responsible for the assassination on the ground that it was not its task to investigate the assassination. It interpreted its task as restricted to finding out why the assassination took place and was the investigation proceeding on right lines.
On both counts, it has given highly negative findings. Its findings on the failure to provide her with effective security point the accusing finger at the Musharraf government. Its equally negative findings indicating a post-assassination cover-up point the accusing finger at the government of Musharraf as well as Zardari. Its damning criticism of the intelligence agencies relates to their functioning under Musharraf as well as Zardari.
I have not yet read the full text of the report. The extracts available are silent on the role of Rehman Mallik as Benazir's security liaison officer appointed by her party.
Were Zardari's repeated attempts to delay the release of the report made at the instance of the ISI? At a time when the administration of President Barack Obama has been giving one certificate of good conduct after another to the ISI, the UN Commission's observations should be highly embarrassing.
However, one should not expect any change in the attitude of the Obama administration.
Obama's main concern now is for the Democrats to do well in the Congressional elections due later this year and for him to win a second term. For that he should be able to disengage the US troops from Afghanistan. For that the co-operation of the present senior officials of the Pakistani Army and the ISI are necessary.
Their culpability in the assassination of Benazir and for the failure to investigate her assassination would not be allowed by Obama to come in the way of these objectives. His re-election is more important to him than holding the Pakistani Army and the ISI accountable for their role in the case.