Getting Away With Murder

Behind the Investigation of Benazir Bhutto's Assassination

Benazir Bhutto prays as she arrives in Karachi, after eight years of self-exile, October 18, 2007. Petr Josek / Courtesy Reuters

On the evening of December 28, the day after former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, Javed Iqbal Cheema, a retired brigadier general and spokesperson for Pakistan’s Ministry of the Interior, gave a televised press conference to set out the cause of her death as well as to name those responsible for the shooting and suicide bomb attack. He announced that Bhutto had died from an injury sustained when she hit her head on a lever of the specially designed escape hatch of the vehicle in which she had been touring. He also announced that Baitullah Mehsud, who was leader of the Pakistani Taliban at the time, and al Qaeda were responsible for the attack. As evidence, he presented an intercepted telephone conversation in Pashto, purportedly between Mehsud and a man named Maulvi Sahib, in which Mehsud was heard congratulating Maulvi on “a spectacular job.”

Cheema had been given his talking points by the Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, who had attended a briefing at military general headquarters with Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president at the time, and the directors of Pakistan’s other intelligence services. The remarks were met with widespread public outrage and media skepticism. Bhutto’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and others accused the government of a cover-up. Especially doubtful, many believed, was the sudden and timely appearance of the telephone intercept, as well as the speed with which its contents were analyzed and interpreted. One senior policeman we interviewed during UN investigation said, “In 24 years of service, I have never seen such spontaneous appearance of evidence.” Many also challenged the idea that Bhutto had not been shot, and questioned how quickly that purported analysis had been done. Numerous senior PPP officials believed that, in an effort to demean Bhutto, the government wanted to imply that she had caused her own death by emerging from her vehicle to salute the crowd.

What followed in the days and months ahead tore Pakistan apart

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