Preposterous

What more can be said about Benazir’s death? The statement that she died by hitting her head on the sunroof of her car is preposterous.

Yesterday, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that Benazir died from a severe wound to her left temple, from which brain matter was oozing.

The American television network, ABC, showed video (now posted on its website — see sidebar on this page here) of Benazir’s last moments in which, as the anchor explains, three gunshots are clearly audible.

(ABC says the video was shown at the press conference given by Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior — in which the preposterous hitting-her-head-on-the-sunroof theory was advanced.)

Angry Arab wrote today that “The brilliant Interior Minister of Pakistan said that Bhutto died from hitting her head against the car roof, but in the same press conference it was said that Al-Qa`idah killed her. So are we being told that somebody from al-Qa`idah pushed her head against the car, now that the death is thus explained?” See his 29 December post here.

An anonymous Pakistani journalist wrote in The Guardian’s Comment is Free today that: “I spoke with some of the house owners [in Rawalpindi] about the incident. ‘Political rallies are apt to happen around these parts, and the police always ask us if they can depute officers from our roof to survey the situation. They didn’t this time. When I asked them about it prior to BB’s arrival, they told me to stay inside and bolt my gate‘, one resident told me. The former chief of the ISI Hamid Gul spoke on a segment on Dawn News TV, where he asked, rhetorically, why the scene of the assassination washed out and cleaned up before forensics were allowed to assess it. Even within the supposedly monolithic intelligence agency there are ongoing questions and dissent being voiced. Where does that leave us? Pakistan’s Interior Ministry held a press conference on Friday night, stating the official government line about the assassination. They said Benazir was killed after smashing her head on her car’s sunroof while trying to duck, and that no bullet or shrapnel was found inside her. This statement was delivered by spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema, who was dripping with sweat when journalists at the press conference began needling his statements. Cheema boasted that the government had intercepted a telephone conversation between tribal leader Baitullah Masood and an Al Qaeda militant, in which Masood congratulated him on the killing. Journalists were skeptical. If the conversation could so easily be intercepted afterwards, why couldn’t they have been intercepted earlier? And to what extent does Pakistan’s intelligence agency maintain links with Taliban and Baitullah Masood? Both of these questions were posed, to which Cheema robustly recited that we should trust our military intelligence agencies upon which the rest of the world depends. ‘Rest of the world’, in this case, must mean America. And it’s very convenient for this government to blame the assassination on Islamic terrorists. When local governments were faced with student agitation about the state of emergency, or striking farmers organising in Okara, local police were quick to charge activists with terrorism. There is a pattern of this administration trying to invoke terrorism whenever its legitimacy is challenged locally or abroad”.

Comment from SharifL: “…All political assassinations in Pakistan remain inexplicable since the truth about them has never been investigated or investigated but not made public. Most of the conservative Muslims, and I include AlQuida and taliban in this group, consider it a hideous act to kill women. Subjugate them, treat them differently is acceptable, in fact not uncommon, but not killing. Sherry Rehman, a leader of PPP, and a woman, has countered the Government claim that BB died of bomb blast. Sherry says she was sitting next to Bb and saw two bullets hitting her neck and head. If this is true then it shows that the protection given to Benazir was not sufficient. My question is this: You see a guy, or may be more than one, take out a gun, aim at Bb and shoot. Any nobody from the security was able to stop it and for them it is easier to deny this, since this might show that either the agencies were involved or the protection was not there. I do not want to start the blame game, but the fact is when I saw the street where it took place, being washed and blood cleared a few hours after the ac, i knew the investigation will not get anywhere”. The article and the comment on it from SharifL are posted here.

THe McClatchy newspaper group is reporting that “In Pakistan, the shifting government explanations and Bhutto’s burial without autopsy aroused suspicion. Babar Awan, a senior official of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, said of the sunroof theory: ‘That is a false claim’. He said he’d seen her body after the attack and there were at least two bullet marks, one in the neck and one on the top of the head: ‘It was a targeted, planned killing. The firing was from more than one side’. Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister, Mohammadmian Soomro, told the Cabinet that Bhutto’s husband had insisted on no autopsy. But according to a leading lawyer, Athar Minallah, an autopsy is mandatory under Pakistan’s criminal law in a case of this nature. ‘It is absurd, because without autopsy it is not possible to investigate. Is the state not interested in reaching the perpetrators of this heinous crime or there was a cover-up?’ Minallah said. The scene of the attack also was watered down with a high-pressure hose within an hour, washing away evidence”. This McClatchy report is published here.

Another McClatchy story reported that: “The election rally had been long and lackluster, but on viewing the crowd gathered at the gates of Liaquat Bagh park, Bhutto turned to her deputy, Amin Fahim, and said she wanted to wave, Fahim recounted. The sunroof was opened and she stood up. Three to five shots were fired at her, witnesses said. She was hit in the neck and slumped back in the vehicle. Blood poured from her head, and she never regained consciousness. Moments after the shooting, there was a huge explosion to the left of the vehicle. Witnesses said that Bhutto’s bodyguards pounced on the assassin, who then blew himself up, shredding those around him. Ambulance crews collected pieces of flesh from the scene. The road turned red with pools of blood. I was standing near the rally stage, about 30 to 40 yards away from the scene of the shooting. There was pandemonium. On hearing the shots, I started running toward the scene. Then came the explosion … The assassination occurred in this garrison city housing the headquarters of the Pakistan army, an institution that has always seemed opposed to Bhutto. A couple of miles away across Rawalpindi, a previous military regime had executed her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first democratically elected prime minister, in 1979, when she was 26. Police officers had frisked the 3,000 to 4,000 people attending Thursday’s rally when they entered the park, but as the speakers from Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party droned on, the police abandoned many of their posts. As she drove out through the gate, her main protection appeared to be her own bodyguards, who wore their usual white T-shirts inscribed: ‘Willing to die for Benazir’.” This report is published here.

But — suppose that the assassin (who could hardly be an assassin if Benazir died by hitting her head on the a lever in the sunroof of the car, he would merely then be an assailant) did not blow himself up — suppose he was blown up, as a cover-up?

A story in Counterpunch noted that “She had been addressing an election rally in Liaquat Bagh. This is a popular space named after the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was killed by an assassin in 1953. The killer, Said Akbar, was immediately shot dead on the orders of a police officer involved in the plot“. This account is posted here.

The Associated Press reported today that “Bhutto’s spokeswoman Sherry Rehman, who was in the vehicle with her boss, disputed the government’s version. ‘To hear that Ms. Bhutto fell from an impact from a bump on a sunroof is absolutely rubbish. It is dangerous nonsense, because it implies there was no assassination attempt’, she told the BBC. ‘There was a clear bullet wound at the back of the neck. It went in one direction and came out another’, she said. ‘My entire car is coated with her blood, my clothes, everybody — so she did not concuss her head against the sun roof’. The government said it was forming two inquiries into Bhutto’s death, one to be carried out by a high court judge and another by security forces”. This AP report can be seen here.

Bhutto sent Musharraf a letter naming three who should be investigated in case she were assassinated

The NYTimes reported today that “Ms. Bhutto has long accused parts of the government, namely the country’s premier military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, of working against her and her party because they oppose her liberal, secular agenda. In a letter she sent to Mr. Musharraf just before her return to Pakistan in October, she listed ‘three individuals and more’ who should be investigated for their sympathies with the militants in case she was assassinated. An aide close to Ms. Bhutto said that one of those named in the letter was Ijaz Shah, the director general of the Intelligence Bureau, another of the country’s intelligence agencies, and a close associate of Mr. Musharraf’s. The second official was the head of the country’s National Accountability Bureau, which had investigated Ms. Bhutto on corruption charges. The third was a former official in Punjab Province who had mistreated her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, when he was in jail awaiting trial on corruption charges”. This NYTimes story is published here.

Asia Times Online says caller claimed credit for Bhutto assassination

Asia Times Online reported from Karachi that, immediately after the attack in Rawalpindi that claimed the live of Benazir Bhutto on Thursday evening, “al-Qaeda’s top commander for Afghanistan operations and spokesperson Mustafa Abu al-Yazid” said in a telephone interview that ”We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat mujahideen”.

Asia Times did not say who initiated the phone call. But, the Asia Times report said that Mustafa said: “ ‘This is our first major victory against those who have been siding with infidels [the West] in a fight against al-Qaeda and declared a war against mujahideen’ … He said the death squad consisted of Punjabi associates of the underground anti-Shi’ite militant group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, operating under al-Qaeda orders”.

Asia Times said that “Bhutto died after being shot by a suicide assailant who, according to witnesses, also detonated a bomb that killed himself and up to 20 others at a rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. Bhutto, with Western backing, had been hoping to become prime minister for a third time after general elections next month”.

The Asia Times story is posted here.

However, as China Hand noted in a recent posting on his (her?) blog: “Under the constitution passed after Musharraf seized power in 1999, Bhutto is barred from serving as prime minister as she has held the office twice. But he said: ‘If she wins enough votes, we may reconsider the third-term condition’.” This comment was posted on 17 December here.

(Musharraf himself has just won a third term in office, and while he remained head of the army. He resigned that post after the recent election.)

Hanan Ashrawi on Benazir Bhutto: a very brave woman whose assassination is a very big loss

In our previous post, Bhutto in Geneva, we picked up on a comment in one of YNet’s stories today which reported that Israeli Knesset Member “Colette Avital (Labor) met Bhutto for the first time in the 90s at a dinner held by former US President Jimmy Carter, when the Labor Knesset member served as Israeli consul general in New York. During the party, Avital recalled, Bhutto sat in on an argument she held with Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi over the regional conflict“.

(Colette Avital, for what’s it’s worth, was one of the signatories of The Geneva Accord/Initiative, and was present at the Swiss-sponsored 3 December 2004 “Public Commitment” in Geneva, including at a post-commitement press conference in which she participated with Avraham Burg and Qaddura Fares.)

Reached by telephone in Ramallah just now, Hanan Ashrawi recalled her first meeting with Benazir Bhutto at that event. “It wasn’t an argument”, Ashrawi said. “We were invited by President Carty to the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, to a small dinner”. Ashrawi said that she met Benazir Bhutto several times afterwards: “She certainly was a very brave woman, who stood for democracy despite lots of obstacles — social, societal, and even personal. She steered the course for democracy and against any extremism and violence”.

Ashrawi said that Bhutto’s assassination is “a very big loss to the woman’s movement in politics and democratic movements globally. Her courage is quite noted, and she paid with her life”.

The Jerusalem Post has reported that Israel’s President Shimon Peres, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Gillerman have all said they believe Benazir Bhutto wanted to establish official relations with Israel. Israeli President Shimon Peres told JPost that Benazir “expressed interest in Israel and said that she hoped to visit upon returning to power“. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the JPost that “Upon her return to Pakistan two months ago, Bhutto had stopped in London and, through a mutual acquaintance, relayed a message that she would “in the future like to strengthen the ties between Israel and Pakistan.” And Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Gillerman told the JPOST that “Bhutto was interested in normalizing relations with Israel. ‘She was interested in me relaying that information to Washington and the US, which I did’.”

(In 1994, during the Oslo process — and after the Gaza-and-Jericho first withdrawal of the Israeli Defense Forces from occupied Palestinian territory — there was a flap about Benazir Bhutto wanting to visit Gaza, but without asking for a visa from Israel. But, as Israel has controlled all access to Palestinian territory for decades, that was not possible, and Benazir’s visit was called off. The New York Times reported on 31 August 1994 that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that Israel would give permission for Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan to visit the Gaza strip: “Mr. Peres said that he and the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, Yasir Arafat, had reached an agreement on the visit, proposed for Sept. 4, in a telephone call. ‘Yes, we more or less agreed on that’, Peres told Israeli army radio when asked if they had spoken of the visit. ‘I don’t know the dates, but Israel’s agreement will be given’. The issue of who would have to give permission for the visit was seen as a delicate one of sovereignty over the self-rule area. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel said Monday that Ms. Bhutto had displayed bad manners by announcing that she would visit without permission. Today, Pakistan criticized the ‘discourteous’ remarks by Rabin. Israel insists that under its self-rule agreement with Palestinians, any visitor whose country does not have diplomatic relations with Israel would require its clearance for entry to Gaza. Israel controls all crossings to the strip”. The NYTimes story is archived here.)

President Musharraf also made overtures to Israel. His foreign minister met Israel’s Foreign Minister (Silvan Shalom, at the time) in Istanbul in September 2005, after Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza. The Washington Post reported at the time that “Pakistan does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, although senior officials from the intelligence services of both countries have maintained regular back-channel contacts since the early 1990s, according to an aide to Musharraf, who spoke on condition of anonymity …T he meeting at a hotel in Istanbul between Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri and Israel’s top envoy, Silvan Shalom, was initiated by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, and signaled the government’s desire to improve relations with the Jewish state after decades of enmity, Pakistani officials said … Speaking to reporters in Istanbul, Kasuri said Pakistan had no immediate plans to formally recognize Israel, a step he said would come only ‘following progress toward the solution of the Palestinian problem’. He described the meeting as ‘a gesture to underscore the importance that we in Pakistan attach to Israel ending its occupation of Gaza’, adding, ‘It is important that Israel is encouraged to continue to pursue the course of peace’ … Musharraf’s aide described Thursday’s meeting as part of a broader initiative. The meeting could soon be followed by an official visit to Gaza by a Pakistani delegation, officials said. ‘Pakistan believes that by engaging Israel diplomatically, it can help resolve the Middle East crisis’, Kasuri said in a telephone interview from Istanbul”. This Washington Post article is archived here.

What this shows, it seems, is that both Bhutto and Musharraf are consummate politicians who believed that having cordial relations with Israel is key to having good relations with Washington.

Hanan Ashrawi said in the phone interview today that Benazir had never told her of any interest in establishing relations with Israel: “She was extremely supportive of the Palestinian cause, and dead set against the Israeli occupation, and against the continuation of the occupation. She said she supported an independent Palestinian state — and she said that the occupation must end, and that’s why she didn’t want to deal with the Israelis when she wanted to come to Palestine”.

Benazir Bhutto was surrounded by security before being killed

Does it look as though there’s any laxity in the security surrounding Benazir Bhutto, as she was leaving the rally in Rawalpindi yesterday that was her last — and just moments before she was killed?

Reuters photo from Reuters TV - Benazir leaves rally shortly before being killed

The AP has just reported that “Benazir Bhutto was the target of threats from virtually all of the militant groups who make Pakistan their home — from al-Qaida to homegrown terrorists to tribal insurgents on the Afghan border. Her assassination after a rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi — where the country’s military and intelligence services are based — also focused anger and suspicion on the government of President Pervez Musharraf”. The AP report by Kathy Gannon from Islamabad is posted here.

Having considered all that, Benazir’s assassination does not appear to be at all in Musharraf’s interest…

The brilliant China Hand has written, in this comment posted on his (her?) blog on Thursday 27 December, that: “Beyond the immediate tragedy of Benazir Bhutto’s death by violence in Rawalpindi, the greater tragedy for Pakistan is that the opportunity for a peaceful transfer of power—one that did not involve assassination, judicial murder, or legal vendetta—has been lost. What was going to happen after January 8 parliamentary elections was probably not going to be fair, democratic, or ungrudging, but the consensual shoehorning of some combination of Bhutto and elements of Sharif’s PML-N into Pakistan’s governing arrangement seemed imminent. Now these hopes have been dashed, brutally and seemingly totally. And at a stroke, the assassination has revealed how rickety the U.S. brokered deal to elevate her into the prime ministership was, and, more importantly, displayed frailties and fissures at the heart of Pakistan’s political institutions and civil society … The fatal deficiencies of ability and/or will displayed by Musharraf’s military-backed government in protecting the democratic parties, their leaders, and the process itself are now a matter of dismayed speculation … That Pakistan’s democratic process could apparently unravel so quickly with the death of one person gives a sense that Pakistan’s democratic process is so weak, so compromised, and so mismanaged that its basic viability as a vehicle for national unity and civil society is called into question … Pakistan was expecting that an unconstitutional backroom deal brokered by the United States with the acquiescence of a politically crippled president would somehow survive its way through the sausage grinder of opposition by the secular judiciary, the intelligence services, and Islamist forces, wind its way through an opaque, rigged parliamentary process, survive whatever street demonstrations got thrown at it, and emerge as a new, viable Pakistani polity … For Musharraf personally, the assassination looks like a disaster. At best he looks like a mug, at worst a murderer, in any case a like a lousy president in a country grappling with a national crisis. Nawaz Sharif, now Pakistan’s leading opposition politician, has already called on Musharraf to resign and that could easily turn into the price that Pakistan’s military is willing to pay to ratchet down the domestic crisis. It’s impossible to divine what calculations go on in the black heart of Pakistan’s intelligence services, and they are doubtless not shedding any tears over the death of Bhutto. But their future actions may provide some clues as to their complicity—and their commitment to Pakistan’s civil society and willingness to engage with and accommodate democratic forces. In the coming days, an important indicator will be whether the intelligence services and the army decide to take seriously this affront to their pretensions as stewards of Pakistan’s security. Also, if they do decide to do more than incarcerate some symbolic offenders in an attempt to appease domestic and international opinion, it will be interesting to see whether Pakistan’s soldiers and spooks can exploit their close relationship with Islamist groups to punish the offenders against Pakistan’s law, order, and society, and at the same time thread the needle between law enforcement, suppression, and oppression more successfully than the United States has done in that part of the world“. See China Hand’s latest post here.

Benazir Bhutto in Geneva six months ago

In my previous post, I wrote that I saw Benazir Bhutto at the luggage carousel in the arrivals area of Geneva’s Cointrin Airport very late on the night of 26 June. She was with a single aide (a subcontinental-type man in a grey suit, about her height).

Just now, in Israel’s YNet news, I saw this item about several Israeli officials expressing shock at Benazir’s assassination: [Collette] Avital said she had noticed a change in Bhutto’s behavior during their last meeting, which took place six months ago in Geneva. ‘She began wearing a scarf on her head; she began leaning towards religious’.” The YNet news article is posted here.

Actually, Benazir has been wearing her signature white scarf, put loosely over her hair and only partly covering it — and not covering her neck either, so not a sign of extreme religious conservatism — consistently since she began to run for political office in the late 1980’s. She wore this scarf whenever she appeared to speak in public — at every UN meeting in New York or Geneva (the Human Rights Commission, mainly, and she always mentioned Jammu and Kashmir). Her white scarf, the ends often tucked into her buttoned jacket, appeared to be a symbol of respect, aimed at disarming criticism from conservative male politicians…

In any case, Collette Avital (a member of the Knesset who was mentioned as a possible candidate to suceed the previous President of Israel Moshe Katsav, who was accused of sexual assault; in the end, however, the more senior politician Shimon Peres was elected to the office).

The same Ynet news story reports that “Colette Avital (Labor) met Bhutto for the first time in the 90s at a dinner held by former US President Jimmy Carter, when the Labor Knesset member served as Israeli consul general in New York. During the party, Avital recalled, Bhutto sat in on an argument she held with Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi over the regional conflict“.

Colette Avital, for what’s it’s worth, was one of the signatories of The Geneva Accord/Initiative.

Bhutto has also met Shimon Peres several times, according to the Jerusalem Post, apparently including at conferences of the Socialist International. The Tribune of India today printed a picture of one of their meetings:

Benazir Bhutto meeting Shimon Peres - photo printed in The Tribune of India

The Jerusalem Post reported that “President Shimon Peres said he was shocked by Bhutto’s death. ‘Benazir Bhutto was a brave woman, who did not hide her opinions, did not know fear and served her people with courage and rare capability’, Peres said in statement. ‘I had the privilege to meet her on several occasions, during which she expressed interest in Israel and said that she hoped to visit upon returning to power. Benazir was a charismatic leader and a fighter for peace in her country and across the world’,” Peres said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the JPost that ” ‘I saw her as someone who could have served as a bridgehead to relations with that part of the Muslim world with whom our ties are naturally limited’ … He said the assassination was a ‘great tragedy’, and that he received the news ‘with deep sadness’. Upon her return to Pakistan two months ago, Bhutto had stopped in London and, through a mutual acquaintance, relayed a message that she would “in the future like to strengthen the ties between Israel and Pakistan,” Olmert said. The JPost story is posted here.

YNet also reports that “Danny Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, told Ynet Thursday that in the weeks prior to her assassination, Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto expressed fear for her life in emails she had sent him …While Israel and Pakistan have never established diplomatic relations, Bhutto remained in contact with several Israeli figures. Gillerman said Bhutto had recently sent him a copy of her new autobiography ‘Daughter of Destiny‘, including a warm dedication to Israel. According to him, in her last emails she expressed a fear of being killed by extremist elements in Pakistan. ‘She wrote me of how she admired Israel and of her desire to see a normalization in the relations between Israel and Pakistan, including the establishment of diplomatic ties‘, the ambassador told Ynet after the UN Security Council denounced the assassination as a ‘heinous act of terrorism’ and called on all Pakistanis to exercise restraint. Gillerman said he had last met with Bhutto some three months ago, just two weeks before she decided to return to her homeland after eight years in exile. ‘She asked to meet me to discuss her plans, share her thoughts and concerns with me, as well as examine the possibilities of normalizing relations between Israel and Pakistan‘, he said, adding that she had even expressed an interest in meeting Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni”. This YNet news article is posted here.

The JPost said that “Ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman recalled a meeting he had with Bhutto just prior to her return to Pakistan. ‘My wife and I had an intimate dinner with her and her husband’, he said. ‘We spent over three hours with them. She was an incredibly impressive person, one of the most impressive in terms of her intellect, charm and charisma that I’ve ever met’. Gillerman said Bhutto was interested in normalizing relations with Israel. ‘She was interested in me relaying that information to Washington and the US, which I did’, he said. ‘We were in touch since that meeting by e-mail several times and she expressed concern about her personal safety’.” This JPost report is published here.

Benazir Bhutto: "I didn't choose this life, it chose me"

Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan who returned two months ago to contest parliamentary elections (8 January) after being pardoned on corruption charges by General Pervez Musharraf, was assassinated today by a gunman who blew himself up after reportedly firing bullets at her in Rawalpindi. At least 20 other persons died in the same attack.

Bhutto wrote in the preface to the second edition of her autobiography, Daughter of the East, published in April 2007: “I didn’t choose this life, it chose me”.

There were earlier attacks in Karachi on the convoys of supporters who welcomed her return to Pakistan in October, killing 140 and injuring over 500 persons. She had been warned of more attacks to come — (and one 15-year-old boy carrying a bomb made of dynamite and nails was stopped at a rally in Peshawar in mid-December).

Reuters photo from Reuters TV - Benazir leaves rally shortly before being killed

Benazir Bhutto roundly denounced Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency in Pakistan on 3 November, after winning re-election as president by the Pakistani parliament. He subsequently resigned his army post.

Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was also a Prime Minister of Pakistan, who was overthrown by General Zia ul-Haq in 1977 , then executed on Zia’s orders by hanging in 1979. Benazir herself was imprisoned by General Zia.

Her two brothers were murdered, and her niece recently published an op-ed piece, Auntie Benazir, implying that Benazir had been involved in her father’s death.

Benazir married a wealthy landowner in 1987, then became Prime Minister after Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988. Her husband spent 8 years in jail on various corruption charges, but was never convicted. Bhutto was ousted twice from office on charges of corruption, and reinstated once. Switzerland has frozen her family assets.

[UPDATE: on 28 December, the Associated Press reported, “A Swiss investigation against late Benazir Bhutto for alleged money laundering was declared closed, her lawyer said Friday. A parallel investigation against her husband Asif Zardari continues, however, said Alec Reymond, Bhutto’s lawyer in Geneva. He said ‘the file is closed because the death of the suspect requires the termination of public proceedings’ but proceedings would continue against Asif Ali Zardari and another individual, who are also suspected of corruption. He declined to identify the third suspect”. This AP report was published in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn here.]

I saw her standing near a luggage carousel after arriving at Geneva’s Cointrin Airport late at night last June 26, dressed in salwar-kamiz, with her white scarf — and flat shoes, more comfortable on flights, and after long-haul trips, and after gaining a bit of weight. She was walking and talking with an aide who had greeted her — no protocol in evidence…

She tensed up when she realized I had recognized her, but relaxed when she saw I wasn’t going to approach her.

Bhutto was a female Muslim head of state — the first democratically selected in centuries — and she was the mother of three children (her son must be 19 now, but her two other children are still young). And, Benazir once said, she raised them as “a single mother” during the years of her husband’s imprisonment.

Hair-raising stories about Pakistan's present political melodrama

China Hand wrote in his (her?) brilliant blog, ChinaMatters, on Tuesday that “In contrast to Bhutto, who grotesquely over-reached and counterproductively traded on her U.S. support, Sharif seems to be playing his political hand with considerable skill and coolness—a fact that has probably not escaped Pakistanis wearied of Musharraf’s spectacular ineptness as a political leader. In an interesting move for a politician who once tried to get himself anointed ‘Defender of the Faith’, upon his return Sharif visited the Datar Durbar complex, the tomb of a Sufi saint revered throughout South Asia.
Sufism is at the heart of Punjab’s cultural identity and Sharif visited the tomb no doubt to play up his Punjab roots but also to place some distance between himself and Saudi Arabia, which considers itself the arbiter of Islamic orthodoxy and looks askance at Sufism”. You can look up this report by date here.

China Hand, who does everything with the most exquisite thoroughness, adds that “Looking at the circumstances around opposition leader Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan, one has to believe that there is a deal between Musharraf and Sharif, despite Sharif’s vehement denials. Or, more likely, that there is a deal between Musharraf and Saudi Arabia and between Saudi Arabia and Sharif, with the Saudis acting as guarantors and providing the necessary degree of separation and deniability both two faux-democrats need to maintain their credibility as political leaders. Because, absent a deal to guide and constrain Sharif’s actions, it is difficult to look at allowing his return as anything less than political suicide by Musharraf. This can be understand by looking at Punjab—home to 86 million people, the richest of Pakistan’s four provinces and the center of its politics, the key to power in Pakistan–and the political base of Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N party. Since Sharif’s departure from the scene, Musharraf moved to secure Punjab by midwifing a new Punjab-centered political party, the PML-Q, and lavishing patronage on its chief — and his main parliamentary ally — Chaudhry Shujaat (not to be confused with the Supreme Court Chief Justice). But all that looks like it might all be swept away by Sharif’s return. In addition to his innate reserves of charisma, the surviving organization of his party, the electorate’s general disgust with all things Musharraf, and having a real, live lion show up to greet him at the airport—and despite his reputed legacy as a corrupt politico who once had his ruffians storm the Supreme Court, the same institution for which he now professes such a tender regard–Sharif has Saudi good will and possibly Saudi money to spread around in the service of his campaign. Sharif filed papers to run for a parliamentary seat—indicating that his party will not boycott the elections (hint of a deal there) and triggering a flood of speculation in the Pakistani press that PML-Q will be decimated by a surge of support for Sharif and Chaudhry will fade into irrelevance. So, unless Musharraf wanted to shatter his base of support in Pakistan’s most important province, gut the political party that provides him with his only parliamentary cover, and, in essence, destroy his tenuous hold on power while he’s attempting a difficult transition to a civilian presidency, he’s not going to let Nawaz Sharif return without a deal, even if Saudi Arabia and the United States are wagging disapproving fingers at him…”

China Hand is certainly on to something. But, I can’t help wondering if Gen. Musharraf isn’t running on his own very personal internal, politician’s instincts — and taking risks that may somehow help him pull off something that will be a surprise to all of us (probably including himself) … Politicians take more hair-raising risks than any entrepreneur.

On 19 November, China Hand wrote this: “First a news flash: Frederick Kagan and Michael O’Hanlon are idiots. Via Antiwar.com, Pakistan Daily reports: ‘Frederick Kagan of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute and Michael O’Hanlon of the more liberal Brookings Institution argue in an article published in the New York Times on Sunday that the US simply cannot stand by as a nuclear-armed Pakistan descended into the abyss … Possible plan: One possible plan would be a Special Forces operation with the limited goal of preventing Pakistan’s nuclear materials and warheads from getting into the wrong hands. Given the degree to which Pakistani nationalists cherish these assets, it is unlikely the United States would get permission to destroy them. Somehow, American forces would have to team with Pakistanis to secure critical sites and possibly to move the material to a safer place. For the United States, the safest bet would be shipping the material to someplace like New Mexico, but even pro-American Pakistanis would be unlikely to cooperate. It would be better for the US to settle for establishing a remote redoubt within Pakistan, with the nuclear technology guarded by elite Pakistani forces backed up and watched over by crack international troops’…

China Hand comments: “I actually had to check the New York Times website to make sure this wasn’t a spoof or some piece of anti-American psyops by the Pakistani media. And yes, they really said it. Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeezus.”

However amusing and tear-jerking this loony story is (it is enough to make one weep and laugh at the same time), it is simply inconceivable that any Pakistani would cooperate in handing over the country’s nuclear assests for shipment to New Mexico, or whatever.

Anyone who has listened for years to Pakistani and Indian officials argue in the UN for years would know for sure that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capabilities were developed in tit-for-tat riposts to India’s nuclear weapons program — which was itself developed as an indignant anti-colonial protest at the situation caused by only a few nations (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, as it happens — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China) having such a potent “deterrent”.  As long as India has nuclear weapons, Pakistan has said, it will as well.  Neither India nor Pakistan are about to  give their nuclear assets up — certainly not because of transitory domestic political crises.

Asma Jahangir under house arrest in Pakistan

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) has put out a press release calling for the immediate release of Asma Jahangir, a UN special rapporteur and a member of the ICG Board:

The ICG release says that “Forces loyal to Musharraf rounded up hundreds of political and civil society leaders after his imposition of martial law at the weekend. Dr Jahangir – Chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion or Belief, and Crisis Group Board member – was placed under house arrest for 90 days, along with scores of other HRCP members.”

The ICG statement also demands a restoration of Pakistan’s “constitutional order”.

In the statement, Lord Patten of Barnes, Co-chair of the Board of the Crisis Group, said that “Asma Jahangir must be freed at once … Musharraf’s actions are completely unconstitutional, and he has no legal basis to hold Asma or any of the others wrongfully detained over the past few days.” And U.S. former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, fellow Crisis Group Co-chair, said, “What has happened to Asma has happened to countless Pakistanis – the political opposition, civil society, the judiciary and the media are all under attack. Asma and the others must be set free, and fundamental freedoms must be restored in Pakistan right away.” Former Australian Minister Gareth Evans, Crisis Group President, said that “Asma Jahangir is unlawfully detained just as her country’s constitution has been illegally suspended … For her sake and for the good of the whole country, Musharraf must be made to reverse his decrees. Only a legitimate democratic order can save Pakistan from a descent into further turmoil.”

Later on Thursday, a group of UN human rights experts issued a statement saying that they were “deeply alarmed at the imposition of the state of emergency in Pakistan and condemn the suspension of fundamental freedoms, including the right not to be deprived of one’s liberty, freedom of movement, peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.  The imposition of the state of emergency entails an attack on the independence of the judiciary. We are concerned that President Musharraf’s declaration of emergency powers is in response to judges allegedly ‘overstepping their limits of judicial authority’ and ‘interfering in Government policy’, particularly in the context of countering terrorism and addressing extremism.   We condemn the retaliation measures, including the abuse of the notion of terrorism, against those who are expressing their dissent against the imposition of the state of emergency.  Considering the frequency of arbitrary detentions occurring during states of emergency, the exercise of power under such conditions must be in strict compliance with the principle of proportionality…”

The group of UN human rights experts got down to mentioning Asma Jahangir somewhere in the fifth paragraph: “In particular, we are extremely concerned about the detention and house arrest of leading judges, lawyers and human rights defenders.  This includes the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, who has been placed under house arrest for a period of 90 days, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and other members of the Supreme Court who were also placed under house arrest when they refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Provisional Constitutional Order.  We call for their immediate and unconditional release.  We are concerned that placing a Special Procedures mandate holder under house arrest may adversely impact on his or her ability to carry out the activities necessary to fulfill the mandate.  We are alarmed that a detention order remains in place against Hina Jilani, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders.  We urge the authorities to immediately overturn this order…”

The group also stated that “We condemn the excessive use of force by the police, the brutal repression and the massive arrests that have occurred during demonstrations organized by lawyers to protest against the suspension of the Constitution.  We also express our serious concern about the pervasive restrictions placed on the media, in particular the suspension of broadcasts of all international and national privately owned channels, as well as the serious assaults inflicted upon journalists by members of the police and security forces. We urge the Government to fully remove all restrictions to the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom of the press.  The suspension of fundamental freedoms, in what appears to be an imposition of a state of emergency in breach of national laws and international standards, undermines the enjoyment of all sets of rights and affects all sectors of the population.  We urge Pakistan to return to democratic rule and to stop the ongoing escalation of human rights abuses”.

On Monday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, issued a statement in which she expressed “concern about reports that leading judges, lawyers and political and human rights activists have been detained or placed under house arrest, including United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, Asma Jahangir. The High Commissioner called on the Pakistan authorities to clarify the status of those detained and ensure that no one is detained for the peaceful exercise of their political beliefs”.

The UN High Commissioner said, in the statement issued in her name, that she was “alarmed over the suspension of fundamental rights and imposition of a state of emergency in Pakistan. ‘A state of emergency should only be used to deal with a dire security threat to the nation, not to undermine the integrity and independence of the judiciary’, the High Commissioner said”.

The statement noted that “under accepted rules of international law, fundamental rights, such as the right to life, the prohibition on arbitrary detention, torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, cannot be suspended even in times of emergency. Such far-reaching restrictions of rights must be proportional and may only be applied to the extent and for the time strictly required by the situation”.
The UN High Commissioner’s statement is posted here.