Wednesday, January 02, 2008

From Tragedy to Farce

In recent posts, we've likened Pakistan authorities "investigating" the assassination of Benazir Bhutto to Captain Louis Renault, the corrupt Vichy French police captain in the film classic Casablanca.

But perhaps that comparison is unfair. Renault (as portrayed by Claude Rains) was nobody's fool, but rather, a suave, calculating man who cleverly navigated his byzantine world and conflicted loyalties. "I blow with the wind," Renault announces at one point, underscoring the dual effort to satisfy his Vichy and Nazi masters, while ignoring resistance intrigue in his jurisdiction.

And, Renault was a man capable of doing the right thing--under the right circumstances. His famous directive to "round up the usual suspects" launches a needed conspiracy to save the life of American Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), who has just killed the Nazi official, Major Strasser.

With apologies to Captain Renault (and the late Mr. Rains), we've decided that the Casablanca police Captain is far too savvy, and yes, honest, to serve as a model for the Pakistani thugs running the Bhutto investigation. Indeed, their attempts to explain the former prime minister's assassination are reminiscent of another fictional French police official, the imbecile Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther fame.

Consider the "latest" version of how Ms. Bhutto died last Thursday--or, more accurately, how she did not die. In a dramatic U-turn, a government spokesman has now apologized for claims that Bhutto suffered a fractured skull after hitting her head on her vehicle's sunroof during a suicide attack. As the Hindustan Times of India reports:

Caretaker Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz Khan has asked the media and people to "forgive and ignore" comments made by his ministry's spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema which were slammed by her Pakistan People's Party as "lies" and led to an uproar at home and abroad.

The Interior Minister made the apology during a briefing for Pakistani newspaper editors on Monday. Punjab province on Tuesday issued a front-page advertisement in newspapers that offered a reward of Rs 1 crore for information about a gunman and a suspected suicide bomber seen in the photos and video footage of the assassination.

The government's apparent damage control exercise on Cheema's comments made at a news conference a day after Bhutto was assassinated at Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi on December 27, came after TV channels aired privately shot photos and video footage which showed a gunman shooting at Bhutto.

And, the government's excuse for "getting it wrong" was positively laughable:

Khan said the spokesman's comments may have been a mistake as "we are faujis (soldiers) and we are not so articulate to present our views as you journalists can". Both the interior minister and spokesman Cheema are retired army officers.

Articulation problems aside, it seems clear that some of Khan's fellow "faujis"--who dominate Pakistan's government--are quite adept at blocking a legitimate investigation into the Bhutto assassination. As Richard Fernandez writes at PJM, new reports indicate that Pakistani authorities blocked an autopsy of Bhutto's body in the hours after her death, and seized medical records from the hospital where she was treated. Sources at that facility tell the Washington Post that doctors have been pressured by Pakistani officials to remain silent on Bhutto's injuries and the medical care she received.

If you need more proof that the Musharraf government--or elements within that regime--have no interest in the truth, consider these, equally disturbing revelations. The WaPo reports that Pakistani investigators have yet to interview key witnesses, including bystanders who were injured in the attack against Ms. Bhutto. The paper also learned that police officials failed to seal off the crime scene in the wake of the assassination and allowed the area to be hosed down shortly after Bhutto was killed--destroying valuable forensic evidence.

It's a bumbling spectacle worthy of Clouseau, but unlike the film inspector's antics, there is nothing comedic about Pakistan's mishandling of the Bhutto assassination. While officials in Islamabad still insist that Al Qaida and Taliban elements are to blame, their actions suggest otherwise.

In less than a week, the tragedy of Benazir Bhutto's death has quickly devolved into farce, with no shortage of fools, incompetents and conspirators to further muddy the waters. Meanwhile, Pakistan slides further into chaos, and Al Qaida is poised to capitalize on an unexpected victory, thanks (in no small measure) to Pak officials more concerned with covering up the crime, rather than solving it.


ADDENDUM: In response to continuing unrest--and public rejection of various "official" explanations of Butto's assassination--the Musharraf government has, belatedly, asked for Scotland Yard's assistance in probing the crime. While that is certainly a welcome step, it comes after the loss of valuable evidence, and the failure to autopsy Ms. Bhutto's body. British investigators may find the trail has grown cold by the time they arrive in Rawalpindi, and it's still unclear as to how much "cooperation" they will actually receive from their Pakistani counterparts.

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