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Bullet, shrapnel or sunroof? We’ll never know

If past practice in Pakistan is guide, the investigation into the Dec 27 assassination of Benazir Bhutto will provide neither answers nor closure, writes Amit Baruah.

world Updated: Dec 31, 2007 03:03 IST
Amit Baruah

The questions cry out for answers. The mourners and family members need closure. But if past practice in Pakistan is guide, the investigation into the December 27 assassination of Benazir Bhutto will provide neither answers nor closure.

Rewind to August 17, 1988. An American C-130 aircraft took General Zia-ul-Haq from Islamabad to Bahawalpur, from where he flew by chopper to the Pakistan Army’s field firing range in Tamewali. Zia, along with Arnold Raphel, the US ambassador to Pakistan, had gone to witness field trials of the M-1 tank. They returned to Bahawalpur and after lunch took off for Islamabad.

“At 4.30 pm on 17 August 1988, the VVIP flight, Pak One, with 31 persons on board took off from Bahawalpur airport…for two minutes and thirty seconds, the aircraft kept gaining height and the pilot remained in contact with Pak One. Then came the disaster. Bahawalpur control tower suddenly lost radio contact with Pak One,” K.M. Arif, Zia’s Vice-Chief of Army Staff, wrote in his book Working with Zia.

Zia, Raphel and Gen. Akhtar Abdul Rehman, who ran the Afghan jehad for the Pakistani establishment, were among the 31 killed. A court of inquiry said “the most probable cause” of the crash was a criminal act of sabotage.

Almost 20 years later, Pakistanis and the rest of the world are still clueless about who killed Zia or the circumstances in which his plane was brought down. All kinds of theories have been floated: an inside job, or the involvement of American, Russian, Afghan or even Indian intelligence.

The Pakistani establishment is simply unequal to the job of providing answers.

Many, many questions have rightly been raised about the circumstances of Benazir’s assassination and what obviously appear to be the military’s ham-handed efforts at covering it up.

In any criminal investigation, it’s important to ascertain the facts. Twenty-four hours after Benazir’s murder, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Cheema said in such circumstances the truth was the first casualty. He’s right.

Given that no one is quite sure whether she was shot, died of shock, or a piece of shrapnel hit her, the larger question of who killed her will never be established with any degree of finality.

It’s more than possible that the Al Qaeda and the Taliban consumed her. The Taliban denials of involvement don’t have any ring of truth in them. But the way in which the government has gone about releasing X-rays to “show” that Benazir wasn’t shot only weakens the official case.

Whether it was bullet, shrapnel, shock, cardiac arrest or the sunroof lever hitting her as she fell/tried to dodge a bullet, the basic fact doesn’t change: the chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party was assassinated.

More important is the question of who killed her. My belief is that the Musharraf regime had no motive in killing her: after all President Pervez Musharraf had struck a deal so that she could return to Pakistan. She was, by far, the preferred candidate for prime minister.

The suspicion-laden, militant-supporting, military-infested security establishment is incapable of providing convincing answers to Benazir’s assassination. It’s possible that renegade elements from Pakistan’s intelligence establishment, Islamist in conviction, could have put up the assassins to the do the job.