ISLAMABAD // Following up the UN inquiry into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani government suspended eight officials who were accused of criminal negligence and obstructing subsequent investigations. But critics here have termed the move as insufficient and are urging the government to form a powerful judicial commission to bring the culprits to justice.
Benazir Bhutto, one of Pakistan's most popular politicians, who served two terms as prime minister, was assassinated in a bomb and gun attack in Rawalpindi in December 2007 as she was campaigning for general elections. The eight suspended government officials include Saud Aziz, who was police chief of Rawalpindi, the garrison city adjacent to the capital. A ninth official, Javed Iqbal Cheema, a retired brigadier heading the Civil Defence Organisation, had his contract terminated. Mr Cheema was the spokesperson of the interior ministry at the time of the assassination and had hurriedly conducted a news conference in which he blamed Baitullah Mehsud, the former leader of Pakistani Taliban, as being responsible for the killing.
The United Nations report, made public last week, had faulted the government of the former president, Pervez Musharraf, for not effectively providing security to Bhutto and accused the country's powerful intelligence agencies of severely hampering the investigations. The UN report also identified Major Gen Nadeem Ijaz, then head of military intelligence and a relative of Mr Musharraf, as having ordered Mr Aziz, the police chief, to hose down the crime scene, which resulted in the destruction of evidence. No action has been taken against Gen Ijaz.
The ruling government of the Pakistan Peoples Party was quick to move against civilian officials, however, even though no criminal investigations have been initiated. Some current and former government officials say the UN report has no legal validity and any action based on its findings can be challenged in the courts. "According to rules and procedures, no action can be taken against any government official unless a proper legal investigation has been completed," said Shamshad Ahmad, a former foreign secretary. "If the purpose of the government is to determine the truth and nothing else then there is no way other than forming an independent judicial commission."
He urged the government to form a powerful independent commission, and suggested it be headed by a former chief justice of the Supreme Court and leading senior investigators and medical experts. Mr Ahmad, like most Pakistanis, dismissed the UN report as lacking any new information or facts. "In my view, it is nothing. It is tantamount to distraction and perhaps an eyewash," he said. That the most important question - who killed Bhutto - is unanswered in the UN report has led to much criticism within the country.
Mr Ahmad, who has served as Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations, said the idea of UN diplomats investigating a murder case was faulty from the start. "I can never imagine investigating a criminal case in my own country let alone in a foreign country. Diplomats are not trained for this." Mr Ahmad's demand for the formation of a judicial commission is supported by Hamid Gul, a retired army general and former head of the country's powerful spy organisation, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.
Mr Gul was named by Bhutto as one of the people who wanted to assassinate her when she was planning to return to the country in 2007. Mr Gul, who is a vocal critic of the United States and Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower, accused the current government of dithering and dragging its feet in identifying and bringing Bhutto's killers to justice. "Mr Zardari himself maybe involved," Mr Gul said, voicing a common, if unproven, conspiracy theory. The UN report absolved Mr Zardari, saying there was no truth in such rumours but his critics continue to believe otherwise.
This week, Pakistani news media reported that Mr Gul was also placed on the "exit control list", along with the suspended officials. The interior ministry usually puts people on the list who are under criminal investigation and at the same time they are barred from leaving the country. The role of the Pakistani interior minister, Rehman Malik, is also under the spotlight. The minister is one of the most trusted aides to Mr Zardari. But some PPP officials and analysts have sharply questioned his actions on the day of Bhutto's assassination.
Mr Malik, along with Babar Awan, the law minister and another close aide to Mr Zardari, left the political rally on the day of the assassination in a bulletproof car that was supposed to act as Bhutto's backup vehicle. Ikram Sehgal, a leading analyst and editor of Defense Journal magazine, today wrote a scathing article in The News, the country's leading daily English-language newspaper, accusing Mr Malik of culpability.
"Why President Zardari is so keen to absolve these two characters when they are guilty of abandoning his critically injured wife when even a few critical minutes would have made the difference between life and death?" Sehgal asked in his article. firstname.lastname@example.org