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Assassination of Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan.
Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan.

The assassination of Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto last December 27 has been called the "JFK assassination of Pakistan," and her murder has some parallels to that of the 35th US President. The Bhutto family of political leaders inspired many Pakistanis in a manner reminiscent of John Kennedy and his brother Robert, and Bhutto family members suffered similar fates. Benazir Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was ousted in a military coup in 1977, and later executed in 1979. One brother, Shahnawaz, died under mysterious circumstances, while another, Murtaza, was shot to death by police in 1996 while Benazir was Prime Minister. Like JFK, Benazir Bhutto herself was assassinated while riding in an open vehicle during a political campaign. In both cases, allegations of lax security and a government cover-up ensued as well.

While the JFK and Bhutto assassinations differ in that no independent body like the Warren Commission has been formed to investigate the murder, other post-assassination parallels do exist. Prime among them is the confusion and secrecy surrounding the exact cause of death and the basic medical evidence in the case. No autopsy was performed before Ms. Bhutto's burial, and there is sharp disagreement over the manner of her death.

Early reports indicated she was shot near-simultaneously with a suicide bomb attack. Then the Pakistani government bizarrely announced that she had died due to hitting her head on the escape hatch of the vehicle she was riding in, presumably due to force from the bomb blast. Within a few days, two videos surfaced which showed a gunman firing at the car prior to the bomb explosion. The government has stuck to its story, and a Feb 8 report by Scotland Yard investigators concurs. Because there was no autopsy, however the British investigation relied on X-rays and the videos. The apparent absence of X-rays of her neck and torso led Scotland Yard to report "investigators could not categorically rule out the possibility that she was shot in the neck or upper body." Given the eyewitness accounts that Bhutto was indeed shot in the neck, along with reports of her doctors being pressured, the report cannot be considered definitive.

It matters whether Ms. Bhutto was killed by bullets or a blow to the head in the aftermath of a bomb blast, beyond the issues of cover-up being alleged by many in Pakistan. Bullets, if recovered, might indicate the type of weapon used and thus shed light on the veracity of confessions now apparently being given by extremists in custody. The hosing down of the crime scene in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, reminiscent of the Secret Service's cleaning of the Presidential limousine outside Parkland Hospital, may make such questions unanswerable. No bullets or fragments were apparently recovered either from the vehicle or the area around it.

None other than Arlen Specter, former Warren Commission staff member and inventor of the "single bullet theory," has called for an international investigation into Benazir Bhutto's murder.

Ms. Bhutto's assassination threw into disarray planned parliamentary elections and a campaign to eventually unseat Pervez Musharraf, who had taken control of the country in a 1999 military coup and recently suspended the constitution and taken other actions to prevent being ousted. Elections have been rescheduled for February 18, in an environment of harassment which has caused Human Rights Watch to declare that the vote "cannot be considered impartial."

Who killed Benazir Bhutto? The Pakistani government claims that it was done by Islamic extremists. But when even the most basic facts are in grave doubt, it is hard to give too much credence to any such official pronouncements.

Chronology of News Stories

27 Dec 2007 - Benazir Bhutton Killed in Attack (BBC News) - This early BBC news story stated that Ms. Bhutto was "leaving an election rally in Rawalpindi when a gunman shot her in the neck and set off a bomb."

28 Dec 2007 - Turmoil Grips Pakistan (LA Times) - "As she waved, gunshots sounded and she was hit in the head and neck, aides said. Bhutto sank back into her seat, just as a suicide bomber detonated explosives to the left of her vehicle. People inside the SUV said her face and neck were badly bloodied, apparently from the bullets. As blood poured from her body in the back seat she lost consciousness, aides said, and never regained it."

28 Dec 2007 - Bhutto Assassination Ignites Disarray (NY Times) - This article stated that "Ms. Bhutto, 54, was shot in the neck or head, according to differing accounts, as she stood in the open sunroof of a car and waved to crowds. Seconds later a suicide attacker detonated his bomb...", and later included: "The attack bore hallmarks of the Qaeda-linked militants in Pakistan. But witnesses described a sniper firing from a nearby building, raising questions about how well the government had protected her in a usually well-guarded garrison town and fueling speculation that government sympathizers had played a part."

29 Dec 2007 - Pakistan Asserts Link to Al Qaeda in Bhutto Death (NY Times) - The Pakistani government announced, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it "had obtained an intelligence intercept pinning the attack on a militant linked to Al Qaeda." More surprising to many, though, was that "Interior Ministry made the surprising announcement that Ms. Bhutto had died not from gunshots or shrapnel but from a skull fracture when she was thrown by the force of the suicide bomb and hit her head on a lever of the sunroof of the car in which she was riding." See also LA Times article of 29 Dec 2007.

29 Dec 2007 - Bhutto's Cause of Death Disputed (BBC News) - Another possible cause of death in early stories was shrapnel: "A surgeon who treated her, Dr Mussadiq Khan, said earlier she may have died from a shrapnel wound." This story also quoted PPP party spokeswoman Sherry Rehman as ridiculing as "absolutely rubbish" the idea that Ms. Bhutto "fell from an impact from a bump on a sun roof." Ms. Rehman told the BBC: "There was a clear bullet wound at the back of the neck. It went in one direction and came out another... My entire car is coated with her blood, my clothes, everybody - so she did not concuss her head against the sun roof."

30 Dec 2007 - Rioting Rocks Pakistan as Officials Weigh Election Delay (Washington Post) - PPP Party spokeswoman Sherry Rehman disputed the "sunroof skull fracture theory": ""She was bleeding profusely, as she had received a bullet wound in her neck. My car was full of blood. Three doctors at the hospital told us that she had received bullet wounds. I was among the people who gave her a final bath. We saw a bullet wound in the back of her neck."

31 Dec 2007 - New Video Appears to Show Bhutto Being Shot (CNN) - Two videos both provide the best evidence that Bhutto was shot by a gunman before the suicide blast and before collapsing into the vehicle.

1 Jan 2008 - Doctors Pressured on Bhutto Death (Washington Post) - "In interviews, doctors who were at Bhutto's side at Rawalpindi General Hospital said they were under extreme pressure not to share details about the nature of the injuries the opposition leader sustained in an attack here Dec. 27. The government took all the medical records right after Ms. Bhutto's time of death was read out," said a visibly shaken doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue." This story also quoted Babar Awan, "a top official in Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party who said he saw Bhutto's body after the attack and identified two clearly defined bullet wounds - entry and exit points. He said that the principal professor of surgery at the hospital, Muhammad Mussadiq Khan, was 'extremely nervous, but eventually told me that Bhutto had died of a bullet wound. He told me firsthand he was under pressure not to talk about how she died,' Awan said."

2 Jan 2008 - Pakistan Opposition Considers Protests (Washington Post) - This story noted that "Bhutto had been scheduled to meet hours later with US Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island" and had intended to "give the lawmakers a report outlining complaints on 'pre-poll rigging' by Musharraf's government and the military-run Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate."

2 Jan 2008 - Specter Calls for United Nations Investigation into Bhutto’s Death (News Release) - Senator Specter's letterto the UN Secretary General urges the UN "either alone or in conjunction with the Musharraf government of Pakistan, to appoint an investigating commission. "

3 Jan 2008 - Pakistan Asks Scotland Yard to Aid Bhutto Probe (LA Times) - Faced with mounting international pressure, "President Pervez Musharraf announced yesterday that Pakistan had invited Scotland Yard to help investigate the killing."

4 Jan 2008 - Musharraf: No Government Role in the Assassination of Bhutto (Washington Post) - The Pakistani leader "vehemently denied that he or his government played any role in the death of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, and instead blamed her for not heeding warnings to take extra precautions."

9 Jan 2008 - Musharraf Meets with British Investigators (LA Times) - "President Pervez Musharraf yesterday met for the first time with Scotland Yard investigators .....The Pakistani president, who had initially described the British team's role as limited to forensic and technical assistance, appeared ready to grant them a wider scope of inquiry."

13 Jan 2008 - Many Pakistanis see Government Hand in Bhutto Death (Reuters) - "Nearly half of Pakistanis believe government agencies or government-allied politicians were involved in opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's assassination, a poll found.....only 17 percent of 1,300 people from across the country surveyed thought the Taliban or al Qaeda killed the two-time prime minister."

15 Jan 2008 - Pakistan Struggles Against Ex-Trainees (NY Times) - Two "former senior intelligence officials" advance the "blowback" theory that militants trained by Pakistani intelligence might be behind the Bhutto assassination. If true, this would raise the question of whether the militants were now truly independent.

19 Jan 2008 - Two Arrested in Bhutto Assassination Plot (AP) - "A 15-year-old detained near the Afghan border has confessed to joining a team of assassins sent to kill Benazir Bhutto, officials said Saturday, announcing the first arrests in the case since the attack that killed the opposition leader.....Interior Secretary Kamal Shah confirmed the arrest of two people in the town of Dera Ismail Khan in North West Frontier province, and said one -- a teenage boy -- had confessed involvement in the Dec. 27 attack that killed Bhutto. He said interrogators were trying to get corroborating testimony from the other detainee before accepting the confession."

6 Feb 2008 - Cover-up in Pakistan? U.N. needs a permanent assassinations panel (Philadelphia Inquirer) - Arlen Specter issued a call for a permanent UN assassinations panel. He cited parallels between the Bhutto assassination and JFK's, such as the "failure of the local authorities to secure the crime scene." But he included bizarrely: "...reminiscent of the JFK investigation, I heard there was to be no autopsy for Bhutto" JFK did have a military autopsy, though it was so roundly criticized as inadequate that perhaps Specter forgot.

7 Feb 2008 - Two Suspects Arrested in Bhutto Killing (AP) - "Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said the two suspects were picked up in Rawalpindi, where Bhutto died in a gun and bomb attack Dec. 27.....Last month, police in northwestern Pakistan arrested two other suspects, including a 15-year-old boy who was alleged to have been part of a backup suicide squad assigned to kill Bhutto if the primary assassins failed."

8 Feb 2008 - Scotland Yard: Bhutto Killed by Blow to Head ((NY Times) - "Investigators from Scotland Yard have concluded that Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani opposition leader, died after hitting her head as she was tossed by the force of a suicide blast, not from an assassin's bullet, officials who have been briefed on the inquiry said yesterday.....It is unclear how the Scotland Yard investigators reached such conclusive findings absent autopsy results or other potentially important evidence that was washed away by cleanup crews in the immediate aftermath of the blast, which also killed more than 20 other people."

8 Feb 2008 - Bhutto Murder: Key Questions (BBC News) - This story outlines the key questions about Ms. Bhuttos' murder: The differing accounts, Why does it matter?, Just how lax was the security?, Why did Ms. Bhuttos' husband refuse an autopsy?, Why was the scene of the blast hosed down?, What evidence is there that the attack was ordered by Pakistani Taleban?

9 Feb 2008 - Bhutto's Supporters Renew Demand for Full-Scale Probe (AP) -"Benazir Bhutto's supporters yesterday disputed a Scotland Yard finding that a bomb not a bullet killed the former prime minister, and her party renewed its call for a full-scale international investigation into her death." The story also quotes PPP spokeswoman Sherry Rehman: "This gives us all the more reason for a United Nations probe to know the perpetrators, financiers, sponsors and organizers of the this crime.....We are looking for more than the hand that pulled the trigger."

11 Feb 2008 - Bhutto Book Says She Had Names of Assassins (Reuters) - "Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto returned home knowing the names and cell phone numbers of her possible assassins, she wrote in a book finished just days before her murder at a December election rally. Bhutto wrote in 'Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West,' to be released worldwide on Tuesday, that Pakistani officials told her four suicide bomber squads had been sent by Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud, Osama bin Laden's son Hamza, and two militant groups to kill her." The article also says that "After the first attempt on her life, Bhutto wrote that 'a cover-up seemed to be under way from the very first moments of the attack' that she said was 'clearly meant to appear to be an al Qaeda-style suicide attack.'"

13 Feb 2008 - Militant Gives Detail in Bhutto Killing (AP) - "An Islamic militant who is accused of helping carry out the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto wanted to avenge the death of a friend in the military attack last year, a senior police officer said Wednesday. Husnain Gul and his cousin, identified only as Rafaqat, were arrested last week in the Dec. 27 death of Bhutto, who was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack at the end of a political rally in Rawalpindi."

Related Starting Points


Watch Channel 4 video footage of shooting
, with highlights and slow-motion, showing a gunman firing upon Bhutto and her reacting prior to the suicide blast on YouTube.

View on YouTube:
Al Jazeera's Mark Seddon asks how Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister, was killed and who has behind her assassination. Includes statements by Pakistani government.

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