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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 and destabilized the region.
THE CRIME SCENE
When a terrorist offense has been committed in Pakistan, the country’s anti-terrorism act requires the establishment of a joint investigation team (JIT), which brings various agencies -- whether law enforcement or intelligence -- together to solve the crime. The JIT for the Bhutto case was created on December 28. That same day, it made its way to Police Lines -- an administrative center of the Rawalpindi District Police -- where the team met the police chief, Saud Aziz. Instead of proceeding directly to the crime site, Aziz served the investigators tea.
While the JIT members were still at Police Lines, Cheema’s press conference aired on TV. In response, Aziz asked the JIT members what they intended to investigate, since the perpetrator had been already identified by the government. When the JIT members still pressed him to visit the crime scene, Aziz responded that, since it was already dark, he would arrange for a visit to the scene the next morning. The following day, the investigators did return to Police Lines, where they were able to examine Bhutto’s vehicle. They soon discovered that there was no blood or tissue on the escape hatch lever that would have been consistent with the gaping injury to Bhutto’s head.
Following the inspection of the vehicle, rather than taking the investigators directly to the crime scene, Aziz hosted a luncheon that extended into the late afternoon. At the end of it, he again suggested that it would be dark by the time the team arrived at the crime scene. They pressed on and finally got to the scene by around 5:00 PM. Once there, the investigators realized that it had been hosed down.
On the evening of Bhutto’s assassination, Aziz had left the crime scene for Rawalpindi General Hospital, where Bhutto was taken. Deputy Police Chief Khurram Shahzad, the most senior Rawalpindi police official in charge at the crime scene, continued to take instructions from Aziz by telephone. The police were allowed to collect some evidence, as were officers from several intelligence agencies, who, as one Rawalpindi police officer told us, used better evidence-collection equipment than the police. Within an hour and forty minutes of the blast, however, Khurram had ordered the fire and rescue officials present to wash the crime scene down with fire hoses. He told the commission that the police had collected all the available evidence by then. Police records show that only 23 pieces of evidence were collected, though, in a case in which one would normally have involved thousands. The evidence included human body parts, two pistols, spent cartridges, and Bhutto’s damaged vehicle.
Khurram and other senior Rawalpindi police officers justified hosing down the crime scene as a necessary “crowd control measure.” They claimed that PPP supporters at the scene were highly agitated when they learned that Bhutto had died, and that some of them could have become disruptive. The policemen added that Bhutto supporters were smearing blood on themselves, so the police needed to wash it away. But after further interrogation, Khurram admitted that he saw only one person involved in such desperate behavior.
Even police officials familiar with the case disputed the assertion that there was a public order problem in Rawalpindi. They further disagreed that the presence of an unruly crowd would have prevented the establishment of police barricades around the crime scene or justified hosing it down. In fact, even at Rawalpindi General Hospital, where many grieving PPP supporters later gathered, the disturbance was minimal.
Since hosing down a crime scene is extraordinarily and fundamentally inconsistent with Pakistani police practice, I am convinced that Khurram and Aziz did not act independently. One source, speaking on the basis of anonymity, told us that Aziz had received a call from the army headquarters giving him the orders to clean the scene. Another source, also speaking on the basis of anonymity, said that Aziz was given the order by Major General Nadeem Ijaz Ahmed, then director general of the military intelligence agency. A further indication that the military might have been involved: the only precedent for hosing down a crime scene was that the military sometimes washes sites after such attacks.
The controversy surrounding the crime scene was so intense that the chief minister of Punjab set up a committee of inquiry, composed of three senior Punjab officials, to look into the matter. The committee started its investigation on February 14, 2008, and concluded its work the very next day. It accepted the Rawalpindi police explanation that the decision to wash the crime scene was implemented by Khurram, the police officer at the scene, with permission from Aziz on the grounds of public order. The commission further found that the decision was not made in bad faith and that hosing down the crime scene did not negatively affect the investigation into Bhutto’s death. The commission’s inquiry was clearly a whitewash.
Beyond the crime scene controversy, there were other serious questions regarding the preservation of evidence. Bhutto’s Land Cruiser was initially taken to the city police station after midnight early on December 28 and then on to Police Lines. In the early hours of December 28, Aziz went to Police Lines, together with the ISI officers who had first conducted a forensic examination of the vehicle. A policeman who was ordered to remove Bhutto’s shoes from the vehicle at the crime scene testified that he saw brain matter on a window and on the car’s seat. Reportedly, during a visit by some JIT members, some people had cleaned the Land Cruiser. And when our investigative team carried out its own physical examination of the vehicle, it did not find any hair, blood, or other matter on the lip of the escape hatch. Forensic analyses of swabs of the lip of the escape hatch later carried out by the JIT and Scotland Yard also found nothing.
Back at the hosed-down crime scene on December 28, the JIT investigators spent seven hours searching for evidence. They followed the water current, wading through the drainage sewer and collecting evidence from the debris. They were able to recover one bullet casing, later established through forensic examination to have been fired from the pistol bearing the bomber’s DNA. They eventually recovered other evidence as well, including a piece of the suicide bomber’s skull from atop one of the buildings near the site.
After its investigation, the JIT arrested five individuals: Aitzaz Shah, Sher Zaman, Husnain Gul, Muhammad Rafaqat, and Rasheed Ahmed. In addition, the JIT charged Nasrullah Abdullah, Mehsud, and Maulvi Sahib as “proclaimed offenders.” They were alleged to have served as handlers and logistics supporters of the suicide bomber, or as persons who were knowledgeable about the plans to assassinate Bhutto but failed to report such plans to the police. The charges against them included aiding and abetting terrorism, murder, and concealing information about the commission of a crime.
It is my belief that the police deliberately botched the investigation into Bhutto’s assassination. Some police officials did not execute their professional duties as vigorously as they should have, perhaps fearing the involvement in the crime of powerful actors or intelligence agents.
THE INTERATIONAL INVESTIGATION
On a cloudy London day at the beginning of September 2009, my fellow commissioners and I walked into the Scotland Yard headquarters building for a full day of meetings. We were there to work with the detectives who had participated in a forensic inquiry shortly after Bhutto’s assassination. The Musharraf government had been forced by an outraged public to agree to an outside investigation to ascertain the cause of her death.
The team of Scotland Yard experts and investigators arrived in Pakistan on January 4, 2008, and spent two and a half weeks carrying out their investigation. The team concluded that although it was not possible to “categorically . . . exclude the possibility of there being a gunshot wound . . . the available evidence suggested there was no gunshot injury.” The London metropolitan police team also found that Bhutto had died of a severe head injury caused by impact on the escape hatch lip as a direct result of the blast, and that the same individual both fired the shots and detonated the explosives.
The scientific analysis of the suicide bomber’s remains -- graphic pictures of which we saw at Scotland Yard -- established that he was a teenage male, younger than 16 years old. According to the Pakistani investigations, this young man was named Bilal, was also known as Saeed, and was from South Waziristan. But beyond the actual identity of the suicide bomber, great mystery remained about his background and whom he was working for.
According to the Musharraf government, Bilal had acted on the orders of Mehsud. This assertion was premature at best. Such a hasty announcement prejudiced the police investigations. And the ISI’s conclusion about its intercepted communication -- the one it used to point the finger at Mehsud -- had not been airtight. Neither of the two speakers were named, although members of the ISI stated that they already had Mehsud’s voice signature on file and so were in a position to identify his voice on the intercept. Nor did the speakers mention Bhutto by name. It is not clear how or when the intercept from the ISI was recorded, either. A former senior ISI official told our commission that the ISI had been tracking Mehsud’s communications closely. He also asserted that the ISI had been tracking Taliban-linked terrorist cells that were pursuing Bhutto, targeting her at a series of successive public gatherings. According to this ISI official, it was one of these cells that executed Bhutto in Rawalpindi.
After the arrest of several low-level individuals, the JIT had made little to no effort to investigate those further up the hierarchy in the planning and execution of the assassination. Surprisingly, the JIT did nothing to build a case against Mehsud, treating Cheema’s presentation of the intercept as determinative of his culpability. Yet Senator Saleh Shah Qureshi from South Waziristan told our commission that Mehsud had categorically denied any involvement, throwing into question the authenticity of the telephone intercept. The JIT took no steps to investigate the veracity of Saleh Shah’s claims. And some Musharraf government officials asserted that any such denials coming from a terrorist would have no credibility. Maybe so, but specialized observers told our commission that, at the time, the Pakistani Taliban had not demonstrated the capacity to undertake an operation outside the tribal areas, such as the one that cost Bhutto her life.
To be sure, Mehsud and the Pakistani Taliban were a clear threat to Bhutto. Just before Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October 2007, after nearly a decade of exile, a news article stated that Mehsud had threatened to welcome her with a wave of suicide bombers. (The report identified Saleh Shah as the source, but he denied the article’s claims emphatically.) Mehsud had motive to kill Bhutto. He was certain that her secularism and moderation would hinder the Pakistani Taliban’s ability to spread Islamic radicalism -- aside from the fact she was a woman and considered a Shiite. He was also convinced that her impending return to Pakistan was part of a power-sharing deal with Musharraf that would strengthen the already solid pro-Americanism of the Pakistani government, and thus undermine the Pakistani Taliban’s power in South Waziristan.
In February 2010, Yousaf Raza Gilani, who was Prime Minister of Pakistan at the time, told the commissioners about a meeting he had with President George W. Bush at the White House in mid-2008, when the subject of Bhutto’s murder was addressed. “As soon as I entered the Oval Office,” Gilani said, “Bush shot, ‘How come you are letting Baitullah Mehsud be interviewed on Pakistani TV? Don’t you know that he’s the one who killed Benazir Bhutto?’” Gilani said that he responded by asking, “Then why haven’t you taken him out with your drones?”
Indeed, the U.S. government did seem to believe that Mehsud was responsible. In a Washington Post interview in January 2008, Michael Hayden, who was then director of the CIA, advanced the idea that Bhutto had been killed by fighters allied with Mehsud, with support from al Qaeda’s terrorist network. The U.S. government did not permit our commission to meet with U.S. intelligence officials to ascertain the basis for Hayden’s assertion. In any case, Bush and the U.S. military had their eye on Mehsud and, in September 2009, he was killed in a Predator drone strike in South Waziristan.
Before she returned to Pakistan, Bhutto knew that there were potential assassins waiting for her, but she did not suspect just one single figure or group. She had received information that there were three other suicide bomber squads in addition to Mehsud’s that would attempt to take her life: a squad linked to Hamza bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s son; one made up of Red Mosque militants; and another from a Karachi-based militant group. She was convinced that these terrorists would not act alone, but feared that the militants could be activated by their handlers, those high up in the pyramid of Pakistani power. Specifically, she feared militant sympathizers within the Musharraf government and the so-called establishment -- those who keep terrorists around as allies for a possible future war with India and who lived high up in the structures of Pakistani power.
“The establishment” is a term used in Pakistan to refer to those who exercise de facto power. It includes the military high command and the intelligence agencies, together with the top leadership of certain political parties, high-level members of the bureaucracy, and businesspeople who are allied with them. The military high command and intelligence agencies are the core and most influential components of the establishment.
Through her writing and public statements, Bhutto had denounced these powers, whose tactics and reach she knew well. She, and many others, held the military and the intelligence agencies responsible for a number of “dirty” campaigns against her when she ran for office in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as for orchestrating the sacking of her governments. She believed that the policies she stood for -- a return to civilian rule and democracy, human rights, greater oversight on the nuclear program, negotiations with India, reconciliation with the non-Muslim world, and confrontation with radical Islamists -- threatened the establishment’s control over Pakistan. Two figures that particularly concerned her were Hamid Gul and Ijaz Shah.
Gul was director general of the Military Intelligence agency under the military dictator Zia ul-Haq and then director general of the ISI when Bhutto was prime minister in 1988–1990. Although Gul was retired, Bhutto believed that he still maintained active ties with the jihadists. Gul, portrayed by an analyst as a “loudly religious man . . . who used to drink in moderation,” refused to be interviewed by our commission. When asked by an Australian reporter about the allegations regarding his involvement in a conspiracy against Bhutto, Gul deflected blame and pointed to the United States: “One thing I do know is that [Bhutto] broke the pledge she made to the Americans. I’ve heard that as part of the American annoyance with her Cheney withdrew an agreement to provide her with 25 Blackwater people to protect her.”
Ijaz Shah, who had been director general of the Intelligence Bureau in 2007 and a former ISI officer, was a member of Musharraf’s inner circle. When Omar Saeed Sheikh, the main individual accused in the Daniel Pearl murder case, was cornered in 2002, he requested to surrender to Shah. Some believe this was because of Shah’s reported connections with him. Shah vigorously denied this and told the commission that the surrender was facilitated through family ties in their home community.
Compared to men like these, Bhutto had said in an October 2007 interview with The Guardian, “People like Baitullah Mehsud are just pawns.”
THE CHESS PLAYERS
So who was playing the chess? Many suspect the ISI. It is no ordinary intelligence service. Beyond the usual duties of gathering information and conducting operations for national security objectives, the ISI, throughout the history of Pakistan, has formed political parties, made payments for political campaigns, rigged elections, and regularly intervened in national politics, contributing to the dismissal of democratic governments. Indeed, the ISI has an entire cell devoted to domestic affairs. According to an ISI source, Bhutto’s movements were closely monitored by the ISI, and her “residences and offices were bugged.”
When the Bhutto commission requested to interview the head of the ISI, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, and army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, we were given a resounding no. In fact, although our request had been made confidentially, Rehman Malik, minister of the interior, responded publicly that we would “not be allowed access to the military officials or [intelligence] agency.” Pakistani media reported that Malik had affirmed that the Pakistani army had “nothing to do with the Benazir assassination case.”
Well advised by a friendly Pakistani official, I wrote directly to Kayani. After a number of informal conversations in which I conveyed the warning that the commissioners would not return to Pakistan if we were not given access to the ISI director general and the army chief, we were granted the interviews we requested.
On the morning of February 24, 2010, we were conducted under heavy security to the well-guarded building of the ISI in Islamabad. We waited for quite some time before being given the green light to pass each security checkpoint leading to the entrance of the building, a grand hall that reminded visitors of the power housed inside.
Pasha, the head of the ISI at the time, is a short, stocky, pleasant, and sophisticated man who received us with cordiality because -- as he affirmed -- he was following orders from the army chief. Pasha stated that the ISI is “better than any rival.” He clarified that the agency “is not an investigating agency” and that any investigative work it does aims at collecting or corroborating information. In the case of Bhutto’s assassination, Pasha admitted, the ISI did provide information to the JIT. “Our boys are very good at certain things,” he said with undisguised pride. He added that the ISI had passed information regarding threats directly to Bhutto and the Ministry of the Interior.
According to a former intelligence official, though, the ISI had done more than pass a few bits of information along. In fact, the official said, it had conducted its own investigation of a previous attack on Bhutto in Karachi and had successfully identified and detained four men who had provided logistical support. None of the police or other civilian officials interviewed by the commission regarding Karachi reported any knowledge of such detentions. The same source told us that ISI agents covering Bhutto’s fateful event in Liaquat Bagh on December 27 were the first ones to secure her vehicle and take photos of it after the blast, among other actions.
In addition, members of the JIT that investigated Bhutto’s assassination admitted that virtually all of their most important information, including that which led to the identification and arrest of those suspects now in prison, came from intelligence agencies. Moreover, resources to build investigative capacity, especially into terrorism cases, have generally gone to the intelligence agencies, while police resources and capacity lag behind. And, in the aftermath of several attempts on Musharraf’s own life, the ISI’s investigative capacity was further strengthened.
The meeting with Kayani was somewhat more unusual than the one with Pasha. He agreed to meet with me alone as chairman of the Bhutto inquiry commission, at the Army House in Rawalpindi, at night on Thursday, February 25, with no convoy of security vehicles accompanying me. I had to ride in a non-bulletproof van and was allowed only one armed UN policeman as an escort. I never knew who set those conditions, but I accepted them, despite the strong objections of our security team.
Kayani is a serious-looking military man, relatively tall, clean-shaven, with dark circles under his eyes. Born in Rawalpindi in 1952, he is known as a professional soldier of an independent mind; he had been elevated to the top military post after serving as director general of the ISI from 2004 to 2007, which was an unprecedented move for an army chief. Interestingly enough, Kayani had also served as Bhutto’s deputy military secretary in the 1980s, a fact that might partly explain his presence during the secret negotiations between Musharraf and Bhutto in the Emirates prior to her returning to Pakistan.
The general received me at a large and comfortable sitting area in a reception hall of his army residence. A discreet note-taker accompanied him. We began with small talk about the renovations made to the mansion. He was dressed in civilian clothes and chain-smoked cigarettes. The interview got off to a bad start when I asked about the discussions preceding Bhutto’s return from exile. “Why are you asking me this?” he said. I became annoyed and said that I had asked simply because he had been present at the conversations. Kayani responded that Bhutto was supposed to return by the end of the year (rather than in the fall, as she did), according to her agreement with Musharraf. He assured me there was “a deal” that involved her becoming prime minister, with Musharraf remaining as president, and all judicial charges against her being dropped.
Kayani considered the performance of the Rawalpindi police after the assassination to have been “amateur.” “If in 24 hours you don’t completely secure the scene, then you lose the threads to solve a case,” he said. Kayani also indicated that he had even wondered whether Mehsud had organized the assassination, and said that the Musharraf government’s press conference had been “premature.” “It should not have been done,” he said. One cannot conclude culpability solely on a phone intercept, he added.
Before I left, Kayani spoke fondly of Bhutto. “She had grown as a politician. She had matured politically,” he said, from the time he had served in her government to when Kayani met her again in Dubai.
It was raining when I left the Army House in Rawalpindi to return to our safe house in Islamabad. Upon arrival, I transmitted the contents of my conversation with Kayani to my colleague commissioners and staff. To our surprise, early the next morning, Dawn newspaper had a headline that read, “U.N. Probe Team Chief Meets Kayani.” The news report defined my conversation as “a courtesy call to discuss the progress made in the investigation,” citing a government source. The article also revealed that we had met earlier with Pasha and stated that the security establishment had contacted the government to express its willingness to meet the commission, as it did not have “anything to hide.”
Perhaps not. Suspicions of the ISI’s -- or at least of some retired officers or rogue members of the agency -- involvement in the assassination were not unfounded. After Bhutto’s government was dismissed for a second time in November 1996, she charged that Osama bin Laden had contributed $10 million to the ISI to help in the overthrow her the first time and that the army had terminated her the second time, following her pledge to crack down on terrorists and radical Islamic groups. Further, long unchallenged, the ISI faced a flurry of court actions in 2012. One court case, dating back to 1996, implicated the ISI in the distribution of $6.5 million through Mehran Bank to a right-wing political alliance in an effort to defeat Bhutto, the incumbent, in the 1990 election. The so-called Mehrangate case languished in the Pakistani courts for years until it was refloated by the Supreme Court.
The pervasive presence of the ISI and other intelligence agencies in all spheres of Pakistani life in Pakistan, their ongoing ties with Islamist groups that engage in violence, their involvement in past elections, and their systemic practice of unauthorized wiretapping of not only suspected terrorists and other criminals but also politicians, journalists, and social activists have lent support to the suspicion in Pakistani society, and in the international community, that the ISI, in some shape or form, was involved in the assassination of Bhutto.
We will probably never know with full certainty who killed Bhutto. The list of people and groups that considered Bhutto a hated enemy is long. There are pieces of the murder puzzle but painfully few elements to put them all together.
Some of the wilder theories imagine that Bhutto family members, such as her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and security aides, such as Shashenshah, were the killers. But these people were so close to Bhutto that they would have had numerous and much more propitious occasions to perpetrate an assassination.
Others believe that Musharraf was behind the murder. Bhutto had emerged as a threat to his government as she returned to Pakistan, making accusations about election rigging and the dangers of martial law along the way. And Bhutto herself had sent an e-mail to journalist Wolf Blitzer -- through a friend -- that was to be released only if she were killed, which affirmed that she would “hold Musharraf responsible” for her death because she had been “made to feel insecure by his [Musharraf’s] minions.”
Further, there is evidence that Musharraf was increasingly angry at Bhutto for criticizing his regime so severely after having engaged in negotiations to secure a deal with him. In an interview only days before her death, Musharraf evidenced his acrimony toward her, complaining that, although there were “many things” he had negotiated with her, those agreements “[had] been violated.” Seeming to resent U.S. and British pressure to accept Bhutto as an ally, Musharraf said, with undisguised sarcasm, “It appears in the West that if a person speaks good English, it’s very good. A person who doesn’t know good English is quite unpopular in the West. And if he or she happens to be good-looking, then it’s better.”
But all that does not constitute proof of culpability. Even Bhutto, despite her e-mail pointing a finger at Musharraf, probably did not believe that Musharraf wanted her dead -- only that some people around him did.
That is not to say that Musharraf bears no political and moral responsibility in the assassination. He does. He did not provide the security that Bhutto had requested and was entitled to receive as a former prime minister. (During our investigation, we discovered an Interior Ministry letter, dated October 22, 2007, which had instructed all provincial governments to provide stringent VVIP-level security to Shaukat Aziz and Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, also former prime ministers, with no reference to Bhutto.) Although fully aware of the serious threats against Bhutto, the federal government did little more than pass on those threats to her and notify provincial authorities. Her team’s requests for radio jammers were met at times, but her security advisers often complained that they did not work properly. Provincial governments provided Bhutto with some security support but only after influential politicians in her party made specific and repeated requests.
“I’ll only protect you if you are nice to me,” Musharraf allegedly told Bhutto before she returned to Pakistan from her self-exile, according to former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani. When she asked Musharraf if U.S. officials had talked to him about her security, he replied dismissively that the Americans “could call all they want,” adding, “You should understand something. Your security is based on the state of our relationship.”
In Pakistani politics, everything that works is the result of a deal that has been cut. Musharraf and Bhutto had negotiated an inconclusive deal for her return, one that both parties later felt had been violated by the other. Benazir’s security arrangements, never formally agreed upon, were simply caught up in the rest of it.
In the end, Bhutto’s murder reminds me of the Spanish play Fuente Ovejuna, in which the hated ruler of a village, called Fuente Ovejuna, is killed, and the magistrate who investigates the crime cannot find the culprit. During the investigation, every villager interrogated declares that Fuente Ovejuna did it. 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.
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.