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Video link to BB’s case

Mark Siegel’s testimony has rekindled interest in Benazir Bhutto murder case after seven years. What direction is the case likely to take now?

Video link to BB’s case
Benazir at the last rally in Liaquat Bagh.

After about seven years, there is renewed interest in the murder case of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto especially after the testimony of American journalist and BB’s close friend, Mark Siegel.

The case may now take an interesting turn since the former President Pervez Musharraf has not only rejected his statement but raised some important questions for another former president — Asif Ali Zardari.

As the case stands today, both Musharraf and PPP are convinced that the order to kill her came from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief, Baitullah Mehsud, who himself had denied his involvement days after he was accused, something quite unusual in the TTP especially after they have claimed responsibility.

Musharraf’s response to Siegel’s statement has been that if this was correct why did her spouse Asif Ali Zardari remain silent for five years? At the same time, the former army chief should also be asked as to why has he raised the question of possible contact between Zardari and Baitullah Mehsud now? Did his government ever investigate their alleged link?

Within four months of Benazir Bhutto’s murder, Zardari gave a safe exit to Musharraf with full honour, allowing him to leave the country without even asking him a question about that famous conversation.

Musharraf went into self exile and did not even answer the FIA pro forma about the murder case, which were also sent to at least one dozen people including Makhdoom Amin Faheem, Naheed Khan, former home secretary Brig Ijaz Shah, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi and Rehman Malik. The last two also did not respond to the letter.

An important development in the case came about a month ago when the driver who drove Benazir to Liaquat Bagh gave his statement before the court. According to him, Naheed Khan had asked BB to wave to the crowd after which she came out of the car.

Naheed Khan approached the court and would now record her statement. Her immediate reaction was that since the driver was an employee of Asif Zardari, he might have been asked to give this statement in a bid to implicate her.

So, I contacted Naheed Khan a few days back and asked her as to what actually happened from the time Benazir Bhutto left the Zardari House Islamabad to Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi. She clarified she was not a witness to her meeting with the ISI or MI chief a night before and what they advised her.

“She had her lunch on that fateful day. She called me in her room to discuss her speech. She looked very confident, composed and didn’t give an impression that last night she had been warned not to go to Liaquat Bagh,” she said.

“It was surprising for her and others that when we reached the main gate from where her vehicle was supposed to enter the venue, it was locked. We waited for about 10 to 15 minutes. A lot of people had surrounded the car and were raising slogans. BB was happy but I requested her to be careful,” she said.

“It was certainly the first major security lapse, both on the part of administration and our own security,” she added.

Why did Musharraf’s government seal BB’s letter and avoided to convert it into an FIR? Why was the UN Commission not given access to some of the sensitive record including the possible telephonic conversations between Benazir and Musharraf? These are important questions.

Thus, the statement of former interior Minister Rehman Malik in the ongoing trial would be crucial as not only was he the incharge of security on December 27, 2007 but was also tasked to supervise the investigation during the five years of PPP government. He was one of the key players who brought Benazir Bhutto close to the former President retired General Pervez Musharraf and was a witness to all the negotiations between the two, which ultimately led to the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO).

Malik must be well-aware of the danger of Benazir Bhutto’s decision to ignore the most serious warning from the top intelligence agency about a possible suicide attack in Liaquat Bagh.

So what security arrangements were taken by the party that knew fully well the dangers after the ISI and MI reports (which they reportedly shared with her)? Why was she not advised to address via video link?

Security arrangements were much better when she first arrived in Karachi on October 18, 2007. She took a risk of leading the procession on the truck, but the party’s security team ensured no one came near the truck and it was well-secured. It was mainly because of the security that the twin suicide bombers could not come close to the truck and she survived. The attack was massive and some 150 people were killed and over 300 injured.

However, she should not have been allowed to visit the injured workers within 24 hours of the attack on October 20. Her security never was up to the mark even after such a devastating attack nor did the top leadership of the party convince her to avoid too much public appearance.

Malik also needs to explain as to why as per Benazir Bhutto’s letter written to the Sindh police, the four persons were never questioned during the PPP’s five year tenure. On the contrary, Musharraf was allowed to leave the country and the Chaudhries of Gujrat became PPP allies. Hameed Gul’s claim that she had withdrawn his name was never questioned by the PPP and Brig. Ijaz Shah’s name was even dropped from the prosecution witness list.

So Malik’s statement is important to understand as to what happened during PPP’s tenure in this case and why Mark Siegel waited for so long to record the statement in the case, though he had given one statement before the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) a few years ago.

According to Siegel’s latest disclosure, Asif Ali Zardari was also present when Musharraf called her and she was upset and disturbed after the talk. She told him that Musharraf had warned her not to come to Pakistan before elections; otherwise he could not guarantee her safety. Now, Siegel may face tough ‘cross examination’ from Musharraf’s strong legal team in the next few weeks.

So far, the prosecution has not included the name of Zardari in the witness list, something quite strange particularly since he was a witness to the same call and must be well aware of the fact whether the call was made from a landline or a cell phone. After all, she and Musharraf were in touch till Benazir finally decided to abandon the “NRO accord”.

The untold story is linked with the assassinations of a few suspected terrorists beside Baitullah Mehsud. A senior FIA official, who was part of the probe, believes that a few suspects had been killed, some in suspected encounters, others in mysterious circumstances.

Therefore, one has to look into the statement of Siegel from two different angles, subject to the cross-examination of Siegel, which would be essential particularly for former president, Pervez Musharraf to clear his name.

If Siegel and Zardari manage to establish that the president Musharraf did made a call and spoke in a threatening tone, he could find himself in a difficult position. He also said he did not have a cell phone till 2009. So, Siegel needs to establish this as well and Zardari can also help the court in this respect.

Musharraf could not fully absolve himself from the responsibility of providing security to Benazir Bhutto. He should go to the court, record his statement and face cross-examination to clear his name. Why did his government seal BB’s letter and avoided to convert it into an FIR? Why was the UN Commission not given access to some of the sensitive record including the possible telephonic conversations between Benazir and Musharraf? These are important questions.

In an important development, an inquiry has been re-opened into the murder of a key witness to BB’s assassination, Khalid Shahanshah, after some reports suggested that he was killed by Rehman Dakait, a well-known character of Lyari gang war. Later, Rehman himself was killed in an encounter by former SSP, CIA, Chaudhry Mohammad Aslam. Months after his assassination, Aslam too was killed in a suicide attack.

When I inquired from a senior police official about the investigation into the murder of Khalid Shahanshah, he said: “it was declared a blind case weeks after his murder, but some suspect he was killed by the underworld”. However, former Home Minister Zulfiqar Mirza once said, “I was stopped from following any investigation in the case, which was surprising for me.”

Two major inquiries were almost shelved after Benazir’s assassination: one, Khalid Shahanshah’s murder and two, the twin suicide attacks on her procession on October 18, 2007. The reason why she survived was the excellent security of Janisaran-e-Benazir around her truck. Surprisingly, the same security was replaced with a much weaker security team. Who took this decision and why? Zulfiqar Mirza is on record expressing his displeasure over the decision and that too at a time when he had good relations with former President Asif Ali Zardari.

Benazir Bhutto had feared that some sections wanted to keep her away from politics and, since Musharraf was in power and he kept her out of politics from 2002 to 2007, she accused him as well.

Bhutto knew it would be a miracle if she survived till the 2007 elections. I still remember her last word when I met her at Zardari House Islamabad a few days before she was assassinated. “They are after my life but I can’t abandon my politics, go back to Dubai and live in exile forever,” she had said.

She stayed back and gave her life for democracy. But the question is: can this system unearth the conspiracy that killed Benazir Bhutto, the first woman prime minister of the Islamic World.

Mazhar Abbas

mazhar abbas
The author is a senior journalist and former secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.

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