Investigating the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the UN lead commissioner recalls the surveillance and corruption that obstructed his team’s search for answers.
Image from Flickr via Shubert Ciencia
“The Bhutto commission communications have been intercepted by an unknown party,” Chief of Staff Mark Quarterman told me nervously a few hours before we were due to depart on our first visit to Pakistan. “A Pakistani government source has urgently contacted me to convey to you this information,” Quarterman said. “Whoever intervened with our electronic mail knows about our agenda in Islamabad.”
“We have to tell the UN Department of Safety and Security and seek their opinion,” I replied.
When we contacted the department, known as the DSS, they asked us to consider suspending the trip. I felt this was overly cautious.
“Look, anyone could be interested in finding out about our communications—not just Pakistanis,” I told our chief of staff. “I intend to go ahead.”
It was July 14, 2009. Since we were scheduled to leave for Pakistan that day, we decided to revisit the issue with the DSS during our stopover in Dubai en route from New York to Islamabad.
At the Dubai airport, after our long and tiring trip, the DSS agreed that we should proceed to Pakistan but advised us not to leave the security perimeter in Islamabad known as the “red zone.” Because any hotel or place of public access would represent a high security risk for the commissioners, we would be staying at the Sindh House, a residence for high officials from Sindh Province during their journeys to Islamabad. The Ministry of the Interior had been able to secure that venue for our commission during our visits. The Sindh House wasn’t the ideal safe house available—the better-equipped one was the Punjab House—but Sindh offered the best security conditions according to an advance team that had evaluated the options. On every mission, newspapers in Pakistan reported that “strict security measures were in place at the Benazir Bhutto International Airport (in Islamabad) as the U.N. team arrived.”
An article in The Guardian summarized the challenge we were facing: “The three-man unit . . . will find themselves plunged into a murky work of conspiracy theories, power politics, and conflicting agendas.”
The strong recommendation by the DSS not to leave the “red zone” of Islamabad was highly problematic. For reasons inherent to the nature of the inquiry, as well as for symbolic motives, we needed to visit the site of Benazir’s assassination in Rawalpindi, a suburb of the Pakistani capital. I decided we had to go to Rawalpindi. Decoy plans—different times of departure for Rawalpindi, as well as different means of transportation—would be made to deceive anyone interested in harming us.
The mission we were embarking upon was particularly difficult because we didn’t know what we were up against. Certainly, there were some political actors openly opposed to our investigation. We also anticipated possible resistance and obstruction within sectors close to the army and the ISI secret service.
An article in The Guardian summarized the challenge we were facing: “The three-man unit . . . will find themselves plunged into a murky work of conspiracy theories, power politics, and conflicting agendas.” Indeed, Bhutto’s assassination was steeped in controversy. But The Guardian did not go far enough. The commission soon encountered a country deeply skeptical of authority and the justice system because of widespread corruption, abundant behind-the-scenes political deal making, and the regular impunity that had met previous unsolved political assassinations.
Upon our arrival in Islamabad in the early hours of Thursday, July 16, the Pakistani government prepared a hospitable reception at our safe house and deployed for us a heavy antiterrorist security detail. Several UN policemen accompanied the commissioners for “close protection.” During our first few hours in Islamabad, I was shocked to learn that our affable non-English-speaking cook at the Sindh House knew in detail our agenda in the Pakistani capital. I complained to our chief of staff and to an aide to the minister of the interior who acted as our contact person in the Pakistani government. No convincing explanation was ever given, except that the cook had to be aware about when we would be around to prepare the daily meals.
The work of our inquiry commission had begun in early July 2009, when the three commissioners and the full staff had gathered in New York for planning sessions and meetings with high UN officials and with the ambassador of Pakistan to the United Nations, Abdullah Haroon, and his aides. Our priority had been to firm up our program for the first visit to Pakistan from July 15 to 18, 2009. We had entrusted administrative and logistic details to our able staff.
The first visit to Islamabad began with a meeting with our chief contact in the Pakistani government and one of the principal advocates of the investigation, Interior Minister Rehman Malik. He was the key interlocutor in our investigation not only as the official point of contact in the government but also as the ex–security adviser of Benazir Bhutto and one of the close aides who had accompanied her on the day of the murder.
Malik was born in 1951 in a town north of Lahore, had earned a doctorate in criminology, and had spent nearly three decades in the Federal Investigation Agency, rising to the top during Bhutto’s second term as prime minister. Sacked and jailed by the Nawaz Sharif government in 1998, he had emerged as Benazir’s principal security adviser while both were in exile in London. According to one source, Malik became a business partner of Benazir, and both were investigated by a Spanish court, which was looking into a company they were associated with called Petroline FZC, “which had made questionable payments to Iraq under Saddam Hussein.”
Rehman Malik resembled an Italian actor from a B movie. Graced with jet-black curly hair and sporting a mustache, he dressed sharply in impeccable suits—colorful ties, silk handkerchiefs regularly adorning the front jacket pocket—and pointed leather shoes. His capacity for hard work impressed us. On several occasions, we met with him at midnight, conversed until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and saw him again at breakfast by 8:00 a.m., where he appeared fresh and ready while we struggled with jet lag and exhaustion due to lack of sleep.
We met Minister Malik at his office in a compound of government buildings. Instead of a working meeting across a table, Minister Malik received us in a formal setting of two rows of chairs—us on one side, his advisers on the other—with the minister in the middle.
On this first meeting at the Ministry of the Interior, Malik expressed his satisfaction with the United Nations having agreed to conduct this investigation and with our personal commitment to carry out this challenging duty on behalf of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Much to our astonishment, Minister Malik informed us that their own internal investigation had made great strides, that the police had confessions from four individuals accused of Benazir’s murder, and that they were in custody.
“I think your work will be made easy when you read this document,” Minister Malik said as he handed me a bound report entitled Summary of Investigation and Trial Conducted So Far for UN Fact-Finding Commission. The seventy-page report was dated June 20, 2009, signed by the Ministry of the Interior, and labeled “Restricted.”
“Thanks; I’m sure this will be very useful,” I responded while I quickly leafed through a few pages and saw that the index included annexes such as witness statements, a summary of the Scotland Yard report, a list of seized articles at the crime scene, names of court judges, special prosecutors, defense lawyers, and so forth.
“This is very complete,” Malik added. “This is your own report ready to be issued, of course, with the changes and additions that you may see fit.”
I looked at my fellow commissioners in puzzlement. The interior minister was handing us what he expected would be the draft final report of the Commission of Inquiry. In short, his message was that our investigation could very well conclude there and then; we did not have to bother with any detailed inquiry. It was a sign of things to come.
Our relationship with Minister Malik was rocky. He never satisfactorily answered our questions about his role and actions during the moments surrounding Bhutto’s assassination. Our insistence on checking details—for example, the distance between his vehicle and the scene of the crime at the moment of the attack—clearly made him uncomfortable. Malik informed us that he had received important information from a “brotherly country” about serious threats to Benazir Bhutto and himself; but despite our requests, he never furnished the details of those threats. On other occasions, he would provide us with incomplete information to be developed at a next conversation.
The minister was always cordial and courteous, dispensing gifts after every visit, which, as we told him, we could not accept due to United Nations ethics rules. He insisted, and those fine gifts ended up in the care of the UN Ethics Office in New York City.
We had a disagreement with the Ministry of the Interior about the quality of our protection during our second visit when the antiterrorist police contingent was replaced by nonspecialized security troops who would point their automatic rifles at our vehicles, instead of upwards or at the floor, when riding in the protection trucks in front of us. Our complaints were generally accommodated; but a few months after the start of our work, we did not feel as warmly welcomed as we did at the outset.
On our first day of work, we paid a visit to Benazir Bhutto’s widower and president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari. He had been named cochairman of the PPP after Benazir’s murder and had immediately demanded a UN probe into the crime.
After the PPP leader’s assassination, the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 8, 2008, for which she was campaigning, were postponed to February 2008. The PPP allied with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led by Nawaz Sharif, and emerged victorious. The new coalition put forth Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime minister. Musharraf’s position became increasingly untenable, and he resigned the presidency in August to avoid impeachment procedures in Parliament. Zardari was then thrust from being an operator behind the scenes, and a political partner of his wife, to president of Pakistan after winning the electoral college contest in September 2008. In the meantime, the Pakistani government had officially contacted the UN secretary–general to request the establishment of a commission to probe Bhutto’s assassination.
Visiting the scene of the crime was complicated. As it involved leaving the “red zone,” we made fake arrangements to go by helicopter the following day—Friday, July 17th—in the afternoon. We even put the details in our updated agenda.
During that July 2009 visit to Zardari, heavy security slowed our access to the presidential palace. Despite a courteous treatment by presidential staff, we had to leave our cell phones at a guard station for security reasons. Later, a high official apologized, explaining that in our case such overzealousness had been unwarranted.
The commissioners and our chief of staff sat in a row of chairs across from a row with several key ministers and Bhutto and President Zardari’s children. In the middle was the presidential chair. Zardari was cordial and appreciative about the establishment of the commission and our personal involvement. He explained the importance of our investigative work for his family and for Pakistan. The president reminded us that from the very beginning, immediately after the assassination of his wife, he had requested an impartial investigation conducted by the United Nations.
Much of the conversation was general, as the formal context did not allow for any in-depth queries about the facts we were interested in. I outlined our program of interviews, which included policemen, witnesses, authorities, and representatives of civil society. I told the president that we intended to visit the scene of the crime in Rawalpindi. The children, including PPP chairman Bilawal, followed the dialogue attentively but did not intervene.
We requested a private conversation with President Zardari to inquire about key facts relevant to our work. He accommodated us on at least two further occasions; our interviews included a lengthy and emotionally charged question-and–answer session at his suite at the InterContinental Hotel in Manhattan during his attendance at the September 2009 General Debate of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Visiting the scene of the crime was complicated. As it involved leaving the “red zone,” we made fake arrangements to go by helicopter the following day—Friday, July 17th—in the afternoon. We even put the details in our updated agenda. Instead, we left at 5:00 a.m. in a caravan of vehicles to avoid detection by anyone interested in blocking our work or harming us and to avoid the press that followed us everywhere.
The roads to Rawalpindi had little traffic, and they actually looked deserted, as the police blocked cross streets along our route for us. At Liaquat Bagh, the park where Benazir was assassinated, we expected to meet senior Rawalpindi police officers who had firsthand information about the events of December 27, 2007.
When we arrived at Liaquat Bagh, we found that the police had cordoned off a two-block perimeter. As we got out of our vehicles, I noticed a small crowd about two blocks away, behind police barriers. Peter Fitzgerald, the Irish commissioner, pointed out what was going on: “It’s the press, Heraldo. There are bunches of them.” In fact, we could see the cameras and telephoto lenses pointed toward us. Someone had tipped off the press about the exact time we would be at Liaquat Bagh.
The senior police officers guided us along the course that Benazir had taken to enter the parking lot and the back of the platform from where she had addressed the crowd. We went up the wooden steps, and I walked around where the dais would have been located that day. From there I commanded a good view of the entire park and the adjacent buildings. I saw sharpshooters on nearby rooftops who had been posted for our security. A Thai UN policeman in charge of my close protection promptly asked me to leave the platform. “This is not safe. You are too exposed,” he said.
We descended into the parking lot and walked the path Bhutto had followed out of Liaquat Bagh and stopped at the exact spot of her assassination. We asked many questions: Why had she turned right instead of left as originally planned? Why was the access to the left blocked? What preventive work had been done before her arrival? How many policemen and police vehicles were escorting her? Why were there so many people around her vehicle? Our staff took abundant notes. The policemen gave ample explanations that attempted to show they had done their job. Our retired Irish deputy police chief, Peter Fitzgerald, was skeptical. If everything had been so perfect, why then had the prime minister been assassinated? he asked me. We announced to the Pakistani officials that we needed to interrogate the Rawalpindi police officers separately during our visit.
Local media provided abundant coverage of our visit to Rawalpindi. The newspaper The Nation wrote that “amid tight security,” the UN commission team “parked a vehicle as was used by Benazir Bhutto at the time of assassination and examined the killing scene.” Then, the news story continued, “the team also examined the nearby buildings and trees at Liaquat Bagh. The U.N. officials took snaps of the site and made sketches, and also examined the stage where Benazir Bhutto had delivered her last address.”
We found many witnesses of the crime—politicians, diplomats, friends of Benazir Bhutto, and members of civil society—more than willing to cooperate, providing us with their testimony, opinions, and hypotheses about the murder. Military officials and policemen tended to be cautious and, in some cases, were visibly edgy about speaking to the commission. But some active and retired intelligence officials were much more forthcoming. At the Sindh House, where we conducted the more sensitive interviews, we saw high uniformed officials become agitated and perspire profusely as they attempted to answer our queries. One fellow commissioner, former Indonesian attorney general Marzuki Darusman, was particularly calm about asking incisive questions and pointing out contradictions. The Rawalpindi policemen’s behavior shifted from initial arrogance and self-assuredness to defensive nervousness as we pressed them with detailed questions. “This guy is lying,” our former Irish cop announced at one point when Police Chief Saud Aziz repeatedly changed parts of his testimony or suddenly recalled facts he had claimed to have forgotten only after we presented him with evidence we already possessed.
Toward the end of the first visit, the commission’s media adviser, Ben Malor, counseled us to give a press conference to satisfy media curiosity and avoid speculation. The press conference, held at the Serena Hotel, attracted about six dozen journalists from media outlets around the world. As chairman of the commission, I gave a brief statement explaining the nature of our mandate. I hoped to lower expectations somewhat. The odds were against us that we would be able to identify culprits. As I told the journalists, our plan was to conduct interviews on a voluntary basis in Pakistan and abroad as needed. Then I described our agenda of official meetings during that first visit, thanked the government for providing us with detailed materials, and emphasized that since ours was not a criminal investigation, it was up to the competent Pakistani institutions to establish responsibilities in the crime. I also stressed that our work would be guided by objectivity, independence, and professionalism. Many questions were posed, some that revealed skepticism about the eventual outcome of the commission’s inquiry. Only one or two questions suggested a veiled hostility, including one about whether we would interview fugitive Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.
Between our second and third visit to Pakistan, a suicide bomber wearing an improvised explosive device and dressed in a uniform of a Pakistani paramilitary force made his way past the security perimeter and into the offices of the UN World Food Program, where he detonated his device.
Security issues surrounded our visits to Pakistan. After the July visit, I had a conversation, accompanied by our commission’s chief of staff, with UN under-secretary–general for security and safety Gregory Starr, who analyzed our task with cold-blooded realism: “You have the best possible security, but nothing is fail-safe,” he said. “The bulletproof car that is being provided for you in Pakistan is an armored B6 level vehicle, which will resist high-powered rifle fire. But, of course, if a suicide bomber with an explosives jacket wraps himself around your car, there is no protection that will keep you safe.”
Between our second and third visit to Pakistan, on October 5, 2009, a suicide bomber wearing an improvised explosive device and dressed in a uniform of the Frontier Constabulary, a Pakistani paramilitary force, made his way past the security perimeter and into the offices of the UN World Food Program (UNWFP), where he detonated his device. Five UNWFP employees were killed and six others were injured. The Tehrik-i–Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the same group that had successfully attacked the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar in June using a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Not only was our mission controversial and dangerous in the eyes of some Pakistani sectors, but jihadist leaders had been targeting the United Nations as an infidel organization. In an April 2008 speech, Al-Qaida’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had declared, “The United Nations is an enemy of Islam and Muslims. It is the one which codified and legitimized the establishment of the state of Israel and its taking over of the Muslims’ lands.”
As the work of the commission progressed, some interests in Pakistan apparently came to view it as menacing. Prior to our third visit in February 2010, our invitation to use the Sindh House was withdrawn, supposedly due to a request by the governor of Sindh. After we protested to Minister Malik, the house was again placed at our disposal. Commissioner Marzuki Darusman’s flight via state-owned Pakistan International Airlines from Jakarta to Islamabad was canceled, causing him to miss that third visit; some Pakistanis interpreted the cancellation as having been intentional.
Assuming that the Sindh House would have hidden listening devices, our commission team often walked around the gardens of the premises, sometimes in the scorching sun, to discuss some of the more delicate issues we encountered, or to adopt decisions that needed to remain secret.
In early February 2010, as we prepared to wind down our investigative work, we received a disquieting message from a credible friendly source in Pakistan: “The commissioners’ security may be in danger. These people are thugs and they are capable of anything if it fits their interests. Besides, they are parochial and don’t know how the world operates.” We never learned who “these people” referred to, but we had an idea and took due note of the warning.
Information leaks plagued our work. After the October 2009 suicide attack on the UNWFP offices, the UN Department of Safety and Security strongly advised that we postpone our third visit scheduled for November. We decided to follow the department’s advice and, to our surprise, a detailed article about the suspension of our visit appeared in the Pakistani media. The article included quotes from a confidential note we had sent to the Islamabad government requesting that arrangements be made for us to interview General Pervez Musharraf.
Assuming that the Sindh House would have hidden listening devices, our commission team often walked around the gardens of the premises, sometimes in the scorching sun, to discuss some of the more delicate issues we encountered in our inquiry or to adopt decisions that needed to remain secret.
As we departed after our initial visit, protocol officials accompanied us to the airport VIP lounge. One individual, whom I remembered seeing during our arrival and who identified himself as a “diplomatic liaison,” approached me when I was seated looking over papers and, after expressing that he hoped we had had a good visit, asked me who I thought had committed Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
“Look, we just began our inquiry,” I said, trying to be courteous, “and as you know, it’s not up to us to identify culprits.”
“Yes, I understand. But do you at least have any sense about who might have done it?” he insisted.
“As I said, this is not part of our work,” I replied, a bit annoyed.
“But just think of it as a hypothesis: What’s your best hunch about who might have perpetrated the murder?”
It was such an obvious ploy to gather intelligence that I simply stood up and walked away to join the rest of the team members on the other end of the room.
When, aboard the plane, I told my colleagues about the disagreeable dialogue I had just had with the “diplomatic liaison” in the VIP room, one of them told me he had experienced exactly the same interrogation from the same individual. We never saw the “diplomatic liaison” again on any of our subsequent visits.
Excerpted from Getting Away with Murder: Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination and the Politics of Pakistan by Heraldo Muñoz. Copyright © 2014 by Heraldo Muñoz. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Author of A Solitary War and the award-winning The Dictator’s Shadow, Heraldo Muñoz is the United Nations Assistant Secretary General in charge of Latin America and the Caribbean for the United Nations Development Programme and the former Chilean ambassador to the United Nations. He lives in New York City.