Asia Program

The Merits of the Case

Aug 22, 2013

Erstwhile coup-making general and former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf was indicted on murder charges Tuesday in connection with the 2007 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. While the anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Rawalpindi had named Musharraf in the case in early 2011, and declared he was a proclaimed offender in August of that year, today's indictment marks the first time that a former military officer has had to answer to criminal charges in a Pakistani court of law. As such, one can only hope that the focus remains on the merits of the case, and that Bhutto's death and the events surrounding it are not drowned out in a political circus.

Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2007, as she left a political rally in Rawalpindi, the Pakistani capital's twin city and the headquarters for the Pakistani military. According to official reports, in addition to Bhutto, 24 others were killed and 91 were injured when a gunman opened fire on the former prime minister as she headed to her car and a bomb exploded near the scene. 

It was the second bloody attack on Bhutto after her return from political exile. Just weeks earlier in Karachi, Bhutto was attacked hours after she touched down on Pakistani soil and though she miraculously escaped death, 149 of her Pakistan Peoples Party workers were killed and 402 supporters and bystanders were injured in multiple bombings.

Bhutto had returned to Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile to take on two pressing issues that were endangering Pakistan as a nation: the increasing radicalization and strength of militant outfits; and the growing interference of the Pakistani establishment and its intelligence agencies in matters of domestic politics and international concern.

After Bhutto's assassination, the Pakistani government requested that the U.N. Secretary General form a commission to investigate her death. The commission began its work in July 2009, and completed its exhaustive report on March 30, 2010.

While the U.N. Commission Report authored by Heraldo Munoz, Marzuki Darusman, and Peter FitzGerald noted Musharraf's culpability in Bhutto's killing, saying "The federal Government under General Musharraf, although fully aware of and tracking the serious threats to Ms. Bhutto, did little more than pass on those threats to her and to provincial authorities and were not proactive in neutralizing them or ensuring that the security provided was commensurate to the threats," it also noted the security failures by the local police and the involvement of the Pakistani intelligence services in the ensuing investigations - particularly the hosing down of the scene and thereby washing away all traces of evidence.

What was made even clearer by the report was that Bhutto faced threats from a number of sources, including "Al-Qaida, the Taliban, local jihadi groups and potentially from elements in the Pakistani Establishment. Yet the Commission found that the investigation focused on pursuing lower level operatives and placed little to no focus on investigating those further up the hierarchy in the planning, financing and execution of the assassination."

Ultimately, the three-member U.N. panel said Bhutto's death could have been avoided if Musharraf's government and security agencies had taken adequate protection measures, and it urged Pakistani authorities to carry out a "serious, credible" criminal investigation that "determines who conceived, ordered and executed this heinous crime of historic proportions, and brings those responsible to justice."

Just days ago, Munoz reiterated his findings, writing in Foreign Affairs: "In Bhutto's case, it would seem that the village assassinated her: al Qaeda gave the order; the Pakistani Taliban executed the attack, possibly backed or at least encouraged by elements of the establishment; the Musharraf government facilitated the crime through its negligence; local senior policemen attempted a cover-up; Bhutto's lead security team failed to properly safeguard her; and most Pakistani political actors would rather turn the page than continue investigating who was behind her assassination."

He continued: "Probably no government or court of law will be able or willing to fully disentangle the whole truth from that web. It may well be that Bhutto's assassination will be another unsolved case in the long history of impunity in Pakistan, and that the controversy surrounding her assassination will endure as much as her memory."

As gratifying as Musharraf's indictment - a move towards justice - is, the issue with the entire case against the former president is that he alone has been accused, stands charged with Bhutto's murder, and will, at the very least, face trial; even imprisonment is likely if the powerful military establishment does not balk at the sight of one of its own being treated as a mere civilian.

Let's hope that the Pakistani military and justice system treat this trial on its merits and do not move it into a personal or political realm. Justice has long been denied to the Bhutto family by the courts and it is time for the courts to judge those responsible on the facts of the case alone.

This article first appeared on ForeignPolicy.com.

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