U.N. Probe of Bhutto Killing Faults Pakistan Military

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Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, center

Not only did Pakistani authorities fail to provide former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto the security that could have saved her life, but elements within the powerful military establishment may even have played a role in her December 2007 assassination. Those are some of the chilling conclusions of a U.N. inquiry, published Friday, April 16, into the killing that rocked Pakistan in the final months in power of former military ruler President Pervez Musharraf.

The three-member U.N. investigation panel — appointed by the international organization at the request of the Pakistani government — concluded that Pakistani authorities had "severely hampered" police investigation of the case. Furthermore, it concluded that the Pakistani authorities' failure to effectively examine Bhutto's death had been "deliberate." Drawing on a nine-month period of interviews and study of evidence, the commission's 65-page report does not finger anyone for the murder. Its heavily circumscribed parameters were never going to allow for that. But its findings suggest that there had been a determined effort to deny her adequate security, prejudice the investigation, withhold evidence and block access to key officials.

The report's claims against the Musharraf government have been denounced by Musharraf's spokesman as a "pack of lies." After twin suicide bombers attacked Bhutto's homecoming procession in October 2007, killing 149 people, the threats to her life were plain to see. But according to the report, the Musharraf government, though "fully aware and tracking" such threats, did little more than pass them on "to her and to provincial authorities, and were not proactive in neutralizing them." The Musharraf government also failed to provide Bhutto the security it granted two other former Prime Ministers from Musharraf's party.

"Not giving Benazir Bhutto adequate security was a deeply cynical, deliberate decision," says Cyril Almeida, a respected analyst with the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. "The assassins may have been intent, but they were given an opportunity."

Bhutto might have survived the attempt on her life had proper security measures been in place, the report says; it places particular emphasis on Saud Aziz, the chief police officer on duty in Rawalpindi that day. Arrangements made by him were deemed "ineffective and insufficient." The security plan drawn up on Dec. 27, 2007, the day of her assassination, was "flawed" and in many respects not even implemented. Too few police officers had been deployed to the political rally where she delivered her last speech. And there was poor coordination with her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) security. The PPP's security arrangements — headed by Rehman Malik, now the Interior Minister — are also heavily criticized in the U.N. report.

Following the assassination, the report continues, Aziz allegedly ordered the controversial hosing-down of the scene, washing away crucial evidence less than two hours after Bhutto's death. The U.N. panel suggested that the police chief may have been acting on instructions from within the military. Aziz was criticized for obstructing attempts to perform an autopsy, delaying investigators' access to the scene, leaving them able to collect only 23 pieces of evidence out of an expected yield of thousands. Aziz now serves as the chief police officer in the southern Punjabi city of Multan and did not return TIME's calls to his mobile phone.

The U.N. commission was also highly critical of the "pervasive role" played by Pakistan's leading spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), then headed by Lieut. General Nadeem Taj, a key Musharraf ally and relative. While the ISI had no mandate to conduct criminal investigations, the report says its agents maintained a constant presence around the police probe. And the lack of a mandate didn't stop it from pursuing its own private investigation, the results of which were only sparingly and selectively shared with the police. There were also "credible assertions of politicized and clandestine action by the intelligence services" concerning the inquiry into Bhutto's death, the report states.

The day after Bhutto was killed, Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema, a senior official at the Interior Ministry, held a press conference, on Musharraf's instructions, to pin the assassination on Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed last August in a rocket strike in South Waziristan — a claim later supported by the CIA. According to the report, it was no secret that Pakistan's militants loathed Bhutto and her stance against Islamist violence. But the Musharraf government's "hasty" announcement, the report says, "was premature at best" and "prejudiced the police investigations which had not yet begun."

The involvement of jihadists is not ruled out by the report, nor is the possibility that Mehsud — once an ISI asset — may have been involved. But it suggests his potential involvement would have formed part of a broader conspiracy. The report also does not rule out the involvement of elements within Pakistan's powerful military establishment.

Having highlighted the murky role of Pakistan's military establishment, says Ali Dayan Hasan, a Human Rights Watch analyst interviewed three times by the U.N. commission, "one hopes that the report will allow the Pakistani government room to conduct a meaningful investigation and bring the perpetrators to book."

Such an investigation has been promised by members of the ruling PPP, who have cheered the U.N. findings. "It will pave the way for a proper police investigation and possible penal proceedings," says Farahnaz Ispahani, an aide to President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower. The Zardari camp will appreciate the report's unflattering assessment of Pakistan's military establishment. Having been involved in power struggles with generals throughout its history — Bhutto's father was hanged by General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq following a 1977 coup, and the military twice helped bring down her government — senior members of the party suspect that the army may have had a hand in Bhutto's murder.

Despite the questions raised by the U.N. probe, investigation of possible military involvement in Bhutto's assassination will prove extremely difficult. Musharraf now languishes in self-imposed exile in London, beyond the reach of Pakistani authorities. And the army he left behind, whose political clout is undiminished, is unlikely to accept a potentially humiliating probe into one of its longest-serving commanders in chief. "No credible criminal investigation can proceed in Pakistan," says Farzana Shaikh, a senior Pakistan analyst at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, "because that would mean going to the heart of the military and its intelligence arm. This is a weak civilian government. The military still calls the shots. That's the reality of Pakistan. Like many other murders, we are not going to get any answers any time soon."