The Bhutto file: Will we ever know the truth?

Almost a fortnight after Benazir Bhutto's death, the police seem no closer to finding her killer. But there is no shortage of conspiracy theories to fill the vacuum of information. Andrew Buncombe reports

It can hardly have been the most pleasant of tasks. Important perhaps, but certainly not pleasant. British police dispatched to Pakistan to help investigate the assassination of Benazir Bhutto have visited the Rawalpindi morgue to examine the partial remains of other people killed in the attack on the former prime minister. The British team apparently looked at unidentified limbs, took photographs and gathered samples of material from the bomb site.

Twelve days ago Ms Bhutto was killed as she stood up through the sunroof of her bomb-proof car as she left an election rally at Liaquat Bagh park in Rawalpindi and investigators officially at least appear no closer to identifying who may have committed the bomb and gun attack. Anecdotal evidence suggests many people believe the authorities were in some way involved. And many say the police, British or Pakistani, have only the slimmest of chances of getting to the bottom of the attack, which left 23 others dead and many more wounded.

Indeed, as the days go by, there is a growing sense that no matter what the team from Scotland Yard uncovers, the killing of Benazir Bhutto will join other A-list mysteries such as the assassination of President John F Kennedy about which most people will make up their own minds. In all likelihood, as is the case with JFK, shot dead by Lee Harvey Oswald as his presidential motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas in late November 1963, people will probably be talking about the killing of Ms Bhutto 45 years from now.

"A day after her murder, Fox News were calling this Pakistan's Kennedy assassination," said Ayesha Tammy Haq, a Pakistani columnist and television talkshow host. "All accounts following the attack, including those of people close to her, those in the cars in front and behind her vary, so one wonders what the real and accurate story is. I hope the team from Scotland Yard is able to conclude this investigation and tell us how she died. If they are able to determine the modus and cause of death it may even lead to her killers."

There are two main reasons why it seems certain Ms Bhutto's death is headed for the conspiracy files. One is that, as with JFK, there are many groups or individuals who may have benefited from Ms Bhutto's removal from the political scene.

President Pervez Musharraf appeared outraged last week when a journalist asked how the country could hold peaceful elections when many people in Pakistan believed he had blood on his hands. "I am not a feudal, I am not a tribal. I have been brought up in a very educated and civilised family that believes in values," he raged. In reality, many Pakistanis suspect either Mr Musharraf or elements of his government were responsible.

In turn, the government blames al-Qa'ida or Taliban-backed militants. Officials even released a transcript purportedly recorded between militant leader Baitullah Mehsud and an unidentified cleric on which he claimed responsibility for dispatching a three-man team that killed Ms Bhutto. Others have questioned whether the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), the ruling party which supports Mr Musharraf and which faced losing its dominance to a resurgent Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by Ms Bhutto, had something to gain by her death.

"I don't know who did it," said Shahzad Mirza, a labourer who was lighting a candle yesterday evening at a small, makeshift memorial to Ms Bhutto outside the now-deserted Liaquat Bagh park in fume-choked Rawalpindi. "Whoever it was, they are the enemies of Pakistan. They have destroyed all hope for Pakistan. If it was some jihadis, then I refuse to believe in the Islam they proclaim. I do think that it was the government's responsibility to guarantee Benazir's security. They can't make any excuses about not doing so."

Others had no such ambivalence. Raja Mohammed Yasin, a supporter of Ms Bhutto, said he arrived at Liaquat Bagh on the day of her assassination and will stay until the 40 days of formal mourning are completed. "She sided with the poor," he said, sitting cross-legged in a chair and wrapped in a large shawl to protect against the winter drizzle. "And that's why they killed her."

If there was any doubt as to whom he meant by "they", Mr Yasin gestured towards a nearby army base. "First the government killed her father because he sided with the poor, and now they've killed her for the same reason."

The other chief reason for the ongoing controversy about who was responsible for Ms Bhutto's death is the number of changing statements by the government and witnesses, and the resultant belief that someone is involved in a cover-up. Several questionable decisions, taken both by the authorities and by Ms Bhutto's senior officials in the hours after her death, have also hindered the investigation.

In the immediate aftermath, the government said she had been shot in the head and neck and had died from the gunshot wounds and the explosion. But a day later, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Javed Cheema, claimed, remarkably, that she had not been shot or hit by shrapnel after all but that she had died after fracturing her head by striking it on the lever that operated the vehicle's sun-roof.

Despite general disbelief, the government has not renounced this claim, though at the weekend Mr Musharraf did admit to journalists that it was "absolutely" possible Ms Bhutto had been shot dead, a theory apparently supported by video footage taken at the scene which shows a gunman opening fire three times at Ms Bhutto and her stumbling forward. While not entirely conclusive, the footage appears many times clearer than the now legendary Zapruder film from Texas, the silent 26 seconds of footage which shows Kennedy being shot on that fateful day.

Ms Bhutto's supporters have always insisted she was shot in the head. Her spokeswoman Sherry Rehman, who was with her when she was killed, insists she saw a large bullet wound, possibly where the bullet exited Ms Bhutto's head. Ms Rehman said she believed Mr Musharraf may now be shifting his position because of the international "ridicule" the government's previous claims incurred. "It was an offence not just to [Ms Bhutto] but to everyone," she added.

Though British police have spoken to witnesses, they will have to satisfy themselves with forensic evidence gathered by the Pakistani police. Police logs show that within 75 minutes of the attack, the authorities had hosed down the scene of crime area, again triggering by claims by some of Ms Bhutto's supporters that they were trying to cover up something.

And yet Ms Bhutto's supporters also took decisions that, in hindsight, have added to the confusion. Although six doctors at Rawalpindi General Hospital signed a certificate stating the for

mer prime minister had died as a result of an "open head injury with depressed skull fracture leading to cardiopulmonary arrest", no full post-mortem examination was performed.

A member of the hospital's board, Athar Minallah, says doctors were pressured not to make such an examination by the local police chief, which the officer denies and about which none of the doctors will publicly comment. But, other sources have suggested that with large angry crowds gathering outside the hospital after it was announced that Ms Bhutto had died, the hospital authorities were simply anxious for her body to be moved elsewhere.

With Ms Bhutto's body having been loaded on a plane to be flown for burial at her ancestral family home near the town of Larkana, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was asked if he wanted a post-mortem examination. In the shocked, early hours of that morning, he declined and shortly afterwards Ms Bhutto was buried alongside her father, Zulifikar Ali Bhutto, another former prime minister of Pakistan. Given the cultural sensibilities and Ms Bhutto's position, it is all but inconceivable she would be exhumed and an examination conducted.

In the absence of such information, the detectives from the Metropolitan Police's Counter Terrorism Command will have to make do with what they can. They have already examined the Toyota Land Cruiser in which Ms Bhutto was travelling, reportedly asking Pakistani investigators to re-enact the scene when she emerged from the vehicle's sunroof. They are also due to interview survivors of the attack, including Deputy Superintendent Ishtiaq Shah, wounded while on duty. And if the challenge facing them was not enough, the Pakistani government has revealed it has asked the British team to complete its investigations before the rescheduled parliamentary elections on 18 February.

Mahabat Khan, a shopkeeper whose premises are opposite Liaquat Bagh, said he had heard all the conspiracy theories about Ms Bhutto's death and had been gauging which have more purchase among the people he meets. "There were people Benazir named in a letter before she died, people who stood to benefit from her death," he said. "Scotland Yard detectives were around here the other day. I hope they can get somewhere. But it's not going to be possible for them to reach the people Benazir mentioned in that letter. No inquiry held in this country is fair. No one here ever takes responsibility for anything."

Additional reporting by Omar Waraich in Rawalpindi

Unsolved cases

President John F Kennedy was killed by a sniper in Dallas in 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, but many people do not believe he alone was responsible. Days later, he was shot dead by a man with Mafia links who himself died soon afterwards. A 1979 report by a House Select Committee concluded Oswald was likely to have been part of a conspiracy.

General Zia-ul-Haq was killed in a mysterious air crash months before the 1988 elections. Pakistan's long-term military dictator was on a C-130 Hercules with senior military officials and the US ambassador, Arnold Raphael. Conspiracy theories ranged from an "inside job", to the CIA, and mango crates in the hold said to contain deadly gas.

The Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme was shot dead in 1986 as he and his wife, Lisbet, walked home in Stockholm. Two years later a petty criminal Christer Pettersson was convicted of murder, but his conviction was quashed. Theories range from right-wing groups, the Kurdish PKK, pro-apartheid South Africans and Baader-Meinhof. The case is unsolved.

The death of the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana in 1994 triggered ethnic tensions that led to the killing of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis by Hutus. His private Falcon 50 was shot down near Kigali. Hutus claimed Tutsis, led by the current President Paul Kagame, were responsible. He blamed Hutus in Habyarimana's party, and dismissed French charges of involvement.

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