Did Musharraf Kill Benazir?

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Pakistan’s former military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, was indicted last week on charges of murdering former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and for treason.

Benazir Bhutto was killed during a bomb attack on her convoy in Rawalpindi during an election rally in December, 2007. She had just returned from exile in Britain and Dubai and was campaigning to regain power as prime minister at the head of her powerful People’s Party.

I had known Benazir for many years and was horrified and shaken by her death. I also knew her accused killer, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, making this a very personal case for me.

Though I’d been a frequent critic in the past of Benazir and her corruption-embroiled relatives, in recent years I’d drawn close to the embattled leader at a time when she was down and out in exile. Some of my readers in Pakistan accused me of being “bewitched” by Benazir. Not bewitched, just deeply impressed by this brilliant, intense, regal woman.

I’d just finished drawing up a proposed new political platform for the People’s Party that emphasized independent policy, an end to feudalism, and reconciliation with tribal and Islamic militants on the Northwest Frontier (today Khyber Pakhtunkwa).

Two days before her killing, we had been exchanging emails in which I warned her not to appear in public except behind bullet-proof plexiglass, as do India’s leaders. We discussed various types of body armor.

“Eric, I’ve got to appear before my supporters. That’s the way we do it in Pakistan,” she replied, brushing off my warnings.

Over the phone, she told me, “if I am killed, the murderers will be the Chaudry brothers from Punjab.” Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi were two of Musharraf’s most important backers and wealthy political barons.

Since Benazir’s murder, no evidence linking the Chaudhrys to her murder has emerged. But she was emphatic in naming them to me.

Interestingly, Benazir and I were in London with her son Bilawal shortly before her ill-fated return to Pakistan. I asked her about the assassination of another Pakistani leader I’d known well and admired, President Zia ul-Haq. She dismissed my question with scorn (Zia had hanged her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto), and said “we’ll never know who killed him – but who cares? He’s dead and gone.”

Ironically, her murder may also remain a permanent mystery.I find it hard to believe that Musharraf orchestrated Bhutto’s death. True, she had outfoxed this not very bright general (she had contempt for all Pakistani generals, and they for her, calling Bhutto, “that girl.”) The discredited Musharraf seemed destined to be a powerless figurehead while the US-backed Benazir resumed leading Pakistan.

At the behest of Washington, Musharraf had ordered the deaths of many tribal and religious militants. He had too eagerly allowed the US military to occupy parts of his country and involve it in the Afghan conflict. But it’s difficult to imagine that Mush ordered the killing of the wildly popular Bhutto when an assassination could easily have failed and backfired. Such a plot would have exposed him to the anger of his patron, the United States, which had been promoting a Bhutto-Musharraf diumverate.

Though I don’t see Musharraf guilty of murder, he seems open to charges of treason for overthrowing the government of Nawaz Sharif and opening Pakistan to foreign domination. However, Musharraf’s cronies and supporters in Punjab should fall under suspicion, as Benazir asserted. The idea that she was killed by tribal militants from Waziristan lacks credibility.

A UN investigation found Benazir’s murder could have been prevented had the government (ie Musharraf) provided proper security.

Musharraf had ordered the arrest and beating of senior judges who are now influencing his case. So Pakistan’s judiciary, never renowned for jurisprudence, can rightly be accused of bias.

Even so, Musharraf has a lot to pay for, including the killing of the most prominent Baluchi tribal chief. The US drone campaign that now ravages Pakistan was approved by him. Pakistan’s fierce generals are outraged by the trial of one of their own, but this time they should allow what passes for justice in Pakistan to take its course. That would be a final gift from Benazir.

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