Pakistan's first choice to lead the Bhutto investigation? (Claude Rains photo courtesy of imdb.com)
As Pakistan descends further into chaos, the Musharraf government says it knows who killed former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Unfortunately, the regime's actions since the assassination have undercut those claims.
Barely 24 hours after her death, there have been stunning revelations about how Bhutto died, and what wasn't done in the aftermath of Thursday's assassination. Both will only fuel suspicion about government complicity in the attack, which claimed the lives of the former prime minister and 20 others.
In one of the nation's first official statements on the assassination, Pakistan's Interior Minister, Hamid Nawaz, said Mrs. Bhutto died from head injuries, not bullet wounds as was originally reported. At least seven doctors at Rawalpindi General Hospital--where Bhutto was taken for treatment--reported that there were no bullet wounds on her body. Initial reports suggested that Mrs. Bhutto was shot in her neck and chest by an unknown gunman, who then blew himself up.
But, according to Mr. Nawaz, X-rays of the former prime minister did not reveal any bullets in her head, leading doctors to conclude that she was killed by shrapnel from the bomb:
“The report says she had head injuries – an irregular patch – and the X-ray doesn’t show any bullet in the head. So it was probably the shrapnel or any other thing has struck her in her said. That damaged her brain, causing it to ooze and her death. The report categorically says there’s no wound other than that,” Nawaz told a Pakistani news channel.
But that finding is not conclusive--at least by western standards--because no autopsy was performed (emphasis mine).
The doctors have submitted a report to the Pakistan government in which they say that no post-mortem was performed on Bhutto’s body and they had not received any instructions to perform one.
An autopsy was not carried out at the hospital "because the district administration and police had not requested the hospital authorities (for this)", the report said.
Admittedly, we're not experts in Pakistani post-mortem procedures. But, under the circumstances--the assassination of a former prime minister seeking a return to power--you'd think that an autopsy request would be automatic.
On the other hand, if any combination of (a) Pakistan's current leadership; (b) the nation's military or (c) it's primary intelligence organization (the ISI) had a hand in the assassination, then failing to order an autopsy would be a convenient mechanism for cooling the forensic trail. Under Islamic tradition, bodies of the deceased are not embalmed and burial usually occurs on the day of death, so decomposition begins quickly, and potential clues may be lost. Readers will note that no one in Islamabad is pressing for an exhumation of the body, either. In the meantime, the failure to conduct an autopsy can can be blamed on the "confusion" that followed the event, or some minor police functionary--take your pick.
In the aftermath of yesterday's tragedy, there was a widespread belief (some would say hope) that the Bhutto assassination was the work of Islamic terrorists. After all, President Musharraf has survived three attempts on his life since 2001; radicals had threatened to kill Mrs. Bhutto since her return to Pakistan in October, and the bombing of her campaign rally had all the trappings of an Al Qaida/Taliban operation.
But, more recent events suggest otherwise. A friend of the late prime minister received an e-mail from her last October (which he also forwarded to Wolf Blitzer of CNN). In the message, Bhutto complained about Musharraf's refusal to provide requested security measures, and said if she died, the Pakistani president would bear part of the blame. Bhutto's long-time U.S. friend (and lobbyist) Mark Siegel claims that Musharraf refused her request for Scotland Yard and the FBI to investigate the "suspicious" 18 October bombing of a rally in Karachi, marking her return from exile. More than 100 people died in that attack.
Two months later, Pakistan's failure to autopsy Mrs. Bhutto's body suggests a government that is disinterested in pursuing possible leads, fearful (or knowing) where they might lead. In an interview on yesterday's Sean Hannity radio program, Middle East analyst (and Pakistani native) Monsoor Ijaz--hardly a Bhutto ally--pressed the Musharraf regime to request outside assistance in the investigation. Without independent confirmation from the FBI and Scotland Yard, he warned, Musharraf could not present a credible case that Bhutto was killed by terrorists.
So far, Islamabad has made no request for assistance, concentrating (instead) on learning the identity of the bomber, and launching an investigation into the lack of an autopsy. Call us cynics, but we're betting that the bomber will be quickly linked to terrorists, and some Rawalpindi cop will be blamed for failing to order a post-mortem. It's a convenient touch that Captain Renault from Casablanca would appreciate.
Sure enough, Interior Minister Nawaz has already announced that "we have evidence that Al-Qaida and the Taliban" were behind the suicide attack on Benazir Bhutto. That may be true, but the government's handling of the case (so far) makes that narrative more difficult to accept. And thousands of Pakistanis appear equally unconvinced.