It was one of the most shocking political assassinations of our time. Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic Pakistani leader and two-time prime minister, died during an attack as she waved to an adoring outdoor crowd. At 54, she had recently returned from exile to her homeland — then led by a military dictator — to attempt a political comeback.
Bhutto’s slaying nearly a decade ago, on Dec. 27, 2007, spawned an international investigation, numerous arrests and an array of conspiracy theories, but it was never solved. Now, even after a Pakistani anti-terrorism court finally delivered its verdict Thursday, the killing appears destined to remain a mystery.
The court, which heard the case inside a high-security prison, found two police officials guilty of failing to provide security for Bhutto and improperly handling the crime scene; both were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Among other unexplained acts, they quickly ordered the immediate area hosed down, thereby destroying potential evidence.
The judges also declared Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the former military ruler now living in exile in London, an “offender” and “absconder” in the case. Musharraf was implicated in the killing by supporters of Bhutto, who claimed he feared her political comeback and was intent on remaining in power. He repeatedly denied those claims but refused to testify in the case and was forced to step down within months of her death.
But the court acquitted five men arrested as suspects in the murder. All were allegedly members of the Pakistani Taliban movement and had been held in prison for nearly a decade on charges of plotting and facilitating the crime. The judges said there was insufficient evidence to convict them, rejecting the official prosecution’s argument that she was the victim of an insurgent plot.
Some commentators expressed deep disappointment in the verdict, suggesting it was a product of political dealmaking and reflected poorly on the independence of Pakistan’s judicial system. Rashid Rizvi, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, commented that the court ruling was “as much a conspiracy as her murder was.”
Farhatullah Babar, a Pakistan People’s Party senator and longtime close aide to Bhutto, called the verdict a “victory for al-Qaeda.” A leading newspaper called the outcome “a disgrace to the memory of one of the country’s greatest leaders.”
But although Bhutto was seen as a democratic inspiration to many as the longtime leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, she was also a controversial and combative figure from a family with a history of violent tragedy, political plotting, internal feuds and military repression. Her father, onetime socialist prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was imprisoned and hanged in 1979 by military dictator Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Her brother Shahnawaz was killed in France in 1985. Another brother Murtaza, a political firebrand, was killed in a gun battle with police in 1996, and some family members blamed Benazir.
And just over two months before her death, Bhutto had survived a massive bombing in Karachi amid at a huge public throng that had come to welcome her back after eight years in exile; the explosion killed 136 people. Musharraf declared a state of emergency and put her under house arrest; shortly after it was lifted she decided to hold an election rally in a park in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
She had just made a speech and was waving from the sunroof of her SUV, surrounded by aides, when shots rang out and a bomb exploded. Reeling, she fell and hit her head on the vehicle and later died of head injuries on the way to a hospital.
One of the most bizarre aspects of the brazen daytime assassination was that Bhutto’s own family never seemed interested in discovering the truth. Her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who was away at the time, refused to allow an autopsy. Elected president a few months later on a sympathy vote, he called for an investigation by the United Nations, but his government barely cooperated with investigators.
In a scathing report, U.N. officials said Pakistani authorities had made no serious attempt to solve the crime, that their own efforts were “severely hampered” by intelligence agencies and that the Pakistani police were hesitant to pursue the case, in part out of fear of higher-ups. The central message of the report was that no one in authority cared about the facts, only about how to spin them.
After the long-awaited verdict was announced Thursday, there was no immediate comment from Zardari, who has been embroiled in a protracted legal battle dating back to the Musharraf era. At the time, he was charged with various acts of corruption, including acquiring assets through illegal means. Several days ago, a full decade later, he was acquitted on some of those charges in an accountability court.