ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Pakistan may be reluctant to thoroughly investigate former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination as called for by a U.N. report for fear of antagonising its security establishment, analysts said on Friday.
A report by a United Nations commission of inquiry released in New York on Thursday said her killing by a 15-year-old suicide bomber could have been prevented if adequate security measures had been taken.
The probe focused on the circumstances surrounding Bhutto’s death. Pakistan is still left with the responsibility of determining who carried out the assassination, one of the most dramatic events in the country’s turbulent history.
Bhutto was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack after an election rally in Rawalpindi on Dec. 27, 2007, weeks after she returned to Pakistan from years in self-imposed exile.
The government of the day led by allies of then President Pervez Musharraf blamed then Pakistani Taliban leader and al Qaeda ally Baitullah Mehsud for Bhutto’s murder.
The U.N. report heavily criticised Pakistani authorities, saying they had “severely hampered” the investigation.
The three U.N. investigators who conducted a nine-month inquiry, headed by Chile’s U.N. Ambassador Heraldo Munoz, believe the failure to effectively examine Bhutto’s death was “deliberate”, the report said.
It called on the Pakistani authorities to carry out a “serious, credible criminal investigation that determines who conceived, ordered and executed this heinous crime of historic proportions” and bring those responsible to justice.
Pakistan arrested five Islamist militants in 2008 on suspicions of involvement in Bhutto’s assassination. They were being tried in an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi but the current government requested the court stop the trial as it wanted to re-investigate.
Police said the Federal Investigation Agency, the government’s main criminal investigation arm, was now conducting the probe. “We are not oblivious of our responsibilities to carry out investigations,” presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.
Bhutto was mistrusted by parts of Pakistan’s military and security establishment. Speculation has lingered she was the victim of a plot by allies of Musharraf, who did not want her to come to power. Musharraf had said he and his military and security forces played no part in Bhutto’s killing.
The toughly worded U.N. report said Musharraf was aware of and tracking the many threats against Bhutto. But his government did little more than pass on those threats to her and provincial authorities, it said.
Retired Major-General Rashid Qureshi, a spokesman for Musharraf, said it was “ridiculous” to hold his government responsible and that Chile’s U.N. ambassador was “not Sherlock Holmes”.
Bhutto had returned to Pakistan to contest an election under a power-sharing deal with Musharraf. A staunch opponent of Islamic militants, she survived a bomb attack on a rally hours after arriving home in the city of Karachi in October 2007. Some 149 people were killed.
The report did not say who it believed was guilty of the crime, but suggested any credible investigation should also look at those who conceived, planned and financed the operation — and should not exclude the possible involvement of Pakistan’s powerful military and security establishment. “The blame has been fixed on the previous administration, especially for those who were responsible for her security,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political and security analyst.
“Now the challenge for the government is to carry out its own investigations. There will be pressure on the government and even within the Pakistan People’s Party to proceed against those (security) officers who are still in service.” But authorities hesitate to explore too deeply, especially the possibility that the army or security forces played a role, as the report suggests they may have.
Pakistan’s powerful army, and its pervasive ISI intelligence agency, have been described as a state within a state. “There is no will to really delve into all kinds of linkages which implicate people who are still in the know, who are still in the country,” said Simbal Khan, acting director of the Eurasian Studies Institute of Strategic Studies.
“I think it will be very difficult for them to convince everybody that this is going to be a real thorough investigation. It will be something that will be put on the backburner again.”
The report questioned why former Rawalpindi Police Chief Saud Aziz gave approval to the ranking police officer at the crime scene to hose down the area, a move that damaged evidence. It quoted unnamed officials who said the order may have come from military.
Asked to comment on the findings, Aziz told Reuters: “There will be further investigation and I will give my answer.” While the report said most of the responsibility for failing to protect Bhutto lies with the government of the day, it was also critical of Bhutto’s own Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) party, for providing inadequate supplemental security for her.
A more intense investigation of the assassination may prove embarrassing to a government already pressed to tackle a range of issues, from a Taliban insurgency to crippling power cuts.
The findings were made public on the same day that Pakistan’s upper house Senate passed constitutional amendments stripping unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, of his main powers and handing them to the prime minister and parliament, a move which could ease political tensions.