Getting Away with Murder: Benazir Bhutto and the Politics of Pakistan by Heraldo Munoz; book review
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Friday 24 January 2014
We are introduced to Heraldo Munoz, former Chilean ambassador to the UN, as he is called up by Ban Ki-moon and asked to lead a commission into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, killed in the full face of the public on 27 December 2007, on her return to Pakistan after exile.
Munoz has his reservations before he is urged to “go ahead and accept”. One feels for him as he points out that he is far from an expert of the region, and that the remit of the commission will have its limitations. It will only seek to shed light on the circumstances of the former prime minister’s murder and not attempt to establish criminal responsibilities. So “I could not force anyone to testify, my powers would be limited, and public expectations would be high.” A lose-lose case, Munoz fears, and so, in some respects, it turns out to be the case for this book too.
Written with all the charisma of a UN report, with repeated facts, repeated unknowns and also the repreated refrain that the culprits behind her death may never be known, this is the opposite of a dramatic read. Given the nature of the assassination – the Kennedy-style crowd killing in front of political supporters who felt Benazir might finally, this time, bring home the dream of democracy to Pakistan – it could have afforded to amp up the drama, even a little.
Munoz stresses how little we know about the killing because the crime scene was swiftly hosed down, among other systematic obfuscations. He also reflects on how the sinister activity around the aftermath of the assassination can be traced upwards – to the ISI (the Pakistani intelligence agency), to the police and the military. Sadly none of it is definitive, or deeply revelatory, though there are smaller moments that reveal detail, such as the idiocy of the emergency services that took Benazir not to the nearby hospital that stocked her blood type, but the one that didn’t.
The second aspect of the book comes as a potted history of previous high level assassinations in Pakistan, from Benazir’s grandfather, to both her brothers and former PMs Liaquat Ali Khan and Zia ul Haq, as well as a brief analysis of Pakistan’s relationship with America, and the history of Benazir’s special relationship with the West. It is necessary to contextualise her death but at the same time, these mini history lessons slow the assassination story down. Neither is Munoz’s analysis of Pakistani politics particularly profound. Other books have given us much more penetrating argument, such as Anatol Leven’s recent study.
There are a few human interest touches and in the absence of any deeper revelation, one wishes that Munoz had sprinkled more of these into his workman-like prose: that Benazir shopped for bulletproof vests with another of the Bhutto clan; that she received such a vest as a gift; and that not long before she died, she was offered a cookie on a plane and after first refusing because she was on a diet, she quipped: “Oh what’s the difference. I’ll be dead in a few months anyway.” Sadly prescient words.
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