Benazir’s murder could have been prevented with appropriate security measures: ATC

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A Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court (ATC) which announced the verdict in the Benazir Bhutto murder case on Thursday stated that the assassination of the former premier “could have been prevented if the Rawalpindi District Police had taken adequate security measures.”

The ATC in its 46-page long order suggested Bhutto’s murder was the result of an inadequate response to security threats.

It concluded that “Bhutto was killed in an attack as a result of firing, followed by a bomb blast caused by an unknown suicide bomber on her way back from addressing a political gathering at Liaquat Bagh.”

According to the court order, explosives were detonated near Bhutto’s car, as she left the rally, by a 15-year-old boy. “No one believes that this boy acted alone,” the order added.

“A range of government officials failed profoundly in their efforts first to protect Ms Bhutto and second to investigate with vigour all those responsible for her murder, not only in the execution of the attack, but also in its conception, planning and financing,” it said.

However, the exact cause of her death remains unknown as a post-mortem examination was not conducted during the course of the investigation, the court noted.

It also noted that the investigation following the murder was marred by inconsistencies, and that the prosecution had been unable to establish a link between the murder conspiracy and the five Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan suspects accused.

The court concluded that the Elite police unite that was supposed to provide ‘box’ security for Bhutto’s vehicle was “not available and was removed by the accused Saud Aziz, the then city police officer (CPO) [Rawalpindi]… There was no emergency plan in case of any undue incident.”

“The prosecution is found to have miserably failed to prove its case against accused Rafaqat Hussain, Husnain Gul, Rasheed Ahmed and Sher Zaman beyond any shadow of doubt, hence, they are acquitted by giving benefit of doubt,” the order said.

CPO Saud Aziz and Khurram Shahzad, a former Superintendent of Police (SP) at Rawal Town, were each awarded 17 years in prison by the court.

The court added that a separate case would be pursued against former president Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf.

Threats to Bhutto’s life

The court order observed that although Bhutto was known to face threats from a number of sources, the investigation into these threats focused on small fry rather than those heading the threat groups.

It also said that investigators dismissed the possibility of involvement by members of the ‘establishment’ that Bhutto had identified as threats.

“Ms Bhutto faced serious threats in Pakistan from a number of sources… Notwithstanding these threats, the investigation into her assassination focused on pursuing lower level operatives allegedly linked to Baitullah Mehsud.

The Commission finds it disturbing that little was done to investigate Baitullah Mehsud himself, Al Qaeda and any individuals or organisations that might have worked on, supported or otherwise been involved directly or indirectly in the planning or execution of the assassination.

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 October 16, 2007, letter to General Musharraf.”

Security failures

“The federal government under General Musharraf, although fully aware of, and tracking, the serious threats to Ms Bhutto’s security, did little more than pass on those threats to her and provincial authorities and were not proactive in neutralising them or ensuring that the security provided was commensurate to the threats.

The federal government failed in its primary responsibility to provide effective protection to Ms Bhutto on her return to Pakistan.

The federal government lacked a comprehensive security plan for Ms Bhutto, relying instead on provincial authorities, but then failed to issue to them the necessary instructions.

Particularly inexcusable was the government’s failure to direct provincial authorities to provide Ms Bhutto the same stringent and specific security measures it ordered on October 22, 2007, for two other former prime ministers who belonged to the main political party supporting General Musharraf.

This discriminatory treatment is profoundly troubling given the devastating attempt on her life only three days earlier and the specific threats against her which were being tracked by the Inter-Services Intelligence.

Responsibility for Ms Bhutto’s security on the day of her assassination rested with the federal government, the government of Punjab and the Rawalpindi District Police. None of these entities took necessary measures to respond to the extraordinary, fresh and urgent security risks that they knew she faced.”

Problems with investigation

A press conference in which Bhutto’s cause of death was announced prior to any formal investigation “hindered” the investigation, the court observed.

“The government press conference conducted by Brigadier Cheema on December 28, 2007, the day after the assassination, was ordered by General Musharraf.

The government’s assertion that Ms Bhutto’s death was caused when she hit her head on the lever of her vehicle’s escape hatch, and that Baitullah Mehsud and Al Qaeda were responsible for the suicide bomber were made well before any proper investigation had been initiated.

This action preempted, prejudiced and hindered the subsequent investigation.

An unequivocal determination as to the cause and means of Ms Bhutto’s death would have required an autopsy.”

However, no autopsy of Bhutto was ever conducted.

“Decision to use fire hose on the crime scene within 1 hour and 40 minutes of the occurrence was unjustified and had resulted in destroying the crime scene, this destruction made it extremely difficult to collect more evidence for DNA tests.

The act of both the police officers constituted as criminal negligence which had caused irreparable damage to the crime scene.

The non-conducting of a post-mortem examination on the body of Benazir Bhutto also damaged the investigation due to which clear cause of death of Benazir Bhutto was not established.

The Commission is persuaded that the Rawalpindi police chief, CPO Saud Aziz, did not act independently of higher authorities, either in the decision to hose down the crime scene or to impede the post-mortem examination.

The deliberate prevention by CPO Saud Aziz of a post-mortem examination of Ms Bhutto hindered a definitive determination of the cause of her death.

It was patently unrealistic for the CPO to expect that Mr Zardari would allow an autopsy on his arrival in Pakistan at Chaklala Airbase nearly seven hours after his wife’s death and after her remains had been placed in a coffin and brought to the airport.

The autopsy should have been carried out at Rawalpindi General Hospital long before Mr Zardari arrived.

The Commission has uncovered no new evidence to suggest a gunshot injury to Ms Bhutto.

Instead, a senior PPP official who publicly purported soon after the assassination to have seen indications of a bullet injury admitted to the Commission that she did not have direct knowledge of such an injury.”

Role of intelligence agencies

“The investigation was severely hampered by intelligence agencies and other government officials, which impeded an unfettered search for the truth.

Despite their explanation to the Commission that they do not have a mandate to conduct criminal investigations, intelligence agencies including the Inter- Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were present during key points in the police investigation, including the gathering of evidence at the crime scene and the forensic examination of Ms Bhutto’s vehicle, playing a role that the police were reluctant to reveal to the Commission.

More significantly, the ISI conducted parallel investigations, gathering evidence and detaining suspects.

Evidence gathered from such parallel investigations was selectively shared with the police.

What little direction police investigators had was provided to them by the intelligence agencies.

However, the bulk of the information was not shared with police investigators.

In fact, investigators on both the Karachi (Karsaz bombing) and Rawalpindi (Bhutto’s assassination) cases were unaware of information the ISI possessed about terrorist cells targeting Ms Bhutto and were unaware that the ISI had detained four persons in late October 2007 for the Karachi attack.

More broadly, no aspect of the Commission’s inquiry was untouched by credible assertions of politicised and clandestine action by the intelligence services – the ISI, Military Intelligence, and the Intelligence Bureau.

On virtually every issue the Commission addressed, intelligence agencies played a pervasive role, including a central involvement in the political negotiations regarding Ms Bhutto’s return to Pakistan and the conduct of the elections.

The Commission believes that the failures of the police and other officials to react effectively to Ms Bhutto’s assassination were, in most cases, deliberate.

In other cases, the failures were driven by uncertainty in the minds of many officials as to the extent of the involvement of intelligence agencies.

These officials, in part fearing involvement by the intelligence agencies, were unsure of how vigorously they ought to pursue actions that they knew, as professionals, they should have taken.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed statements saying Rehman Malik and Asif Zardari appeared to be beneficiaries of the attack to an ATC. The statement was made by a lawyer. The error is regretted.

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