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Martyr’s mystery

A brave look at the intrigue surrounding Benazir Bhutto’s death. If only it had more original research.

books Updated: Jan 08, 2011 00:18 IST
Vinod Sharma

The Bhutto Murder Trail
Amir Mir
Tranquebar
Rs 495 pp 280

I was in Pakistan the night after the December 27, 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Grief was palpable in Lahore and across the garrison city of Rawalpindi and its swanky twin, Islamabad. Pockmarking the walls were posters bearing the prose that has been the Pakistan Peoples Party’s war cry since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s ‘judicial murder’ manipulated by Zia-ul-Haq. “There’s a Bhutto sitting in every Pakistani household. How many of them will you kill in this bloody battle you’re bound to lose...?”

Amir Mir’s book is a full-length version of the tale etched deep in the psyche of liberal democratic Pakistanis — a shrinking tribe that paid farewell the other day to Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor who fell to a fanatic security guard’s bullets in Islamabad. Like Bhutto, Taseer had often stood up against terrorists patronised by the mullah-military nexus, branding them as enemies of Pakistan and Islam.

The author is himself an inheritor of that fine legacy. Not as successful as his elder brother Hamid Mir, a celebrated TV anchor, Amir’s peers regard him better for his refusal to barter journalistic ethics for access to power that, in Pakistan, is a euphemism for the fauj, its intelligence arms and their jihadi beachheads. His professional prowess — and courage — is evident from the way he analyses situations and juxtaposes events that led to Bhutto’s dastardly killing.

The book’s highlight is Mir’s one-on-one meeting with Bhutto in which she said: “You can name Musharraf my assassin if I’m killed.” She was dead a month-and-half later.

The cover-up that followed was reported widely in the media: the crime scene washed clean without looking for clues; remains buried without autopsy; the theory that Bhutto died of ‘head injury’ sustained while going down the sun-roof of her armoured car; Musharraf’s men rushing to blame Baitullah Mehsud but denying the media access to original recordings of his taped conversation with the handler of the killer gang.

Mir skillfully punches holes in that official story. The head injury bit was meant to portray the slain leader as callous while emerging from the car’s sun-roof. It was a ruse Musharraf needed to escape responsibility for failing to protect the former prime minister.

The book contrasts investigations into the 2003 attempts on Musharraf’s life with Bhutto’s assassination. The crime scene in the former case was sealed for days. It helped the police discover a cell phone chip that led to the conspirators. But firefighters washed the Liaqat Bagh site within hours of the pistol-bomb assault. “Bullet wounds found on bodies [of other victims]… hinted at the presence of a ring of sharpshooters… positioned… at vantage points to target the PPP chairperson,” writes Mir.

I’m tempted to compare this work of investigation (compilation?) with Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars. Unlike Woodward though, Mir’s adversarial stance towards the establishment is at once his strength and weakness. It brings in enriching perspectives: how Bhutto’s elimination suited status quoists ready to rig polls in favour of a pro-Musharraf faction of the Muslim League. But it restricts access to the dramatis personae he holds accountable.

Amir has an interview with Bhutto but not with Musharraf — from whom he refused to receive a prestigious journalistic award in 2006. The book records a meeting the former ISI chief Nadeem Taj had with Bhutto to dissuade her from addressing that fateful rally. But it has no direct quote from the spymaster. Amir seeks to fill such gaps by drawing heavily from the UN-led probe. That’s where investigation gives way to compilation, robbing the work of its potential value.