Benazir's husband refused autopsy – wants Hariri-style UN investigation

Agence France Presse has reported this afternoon that Benazir’s husband refused an autopsy, but wants a Hariri-style UN/international investigation into her killing:
“Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari, demanded a United Nations probe into her assassination along the lines of the world body’s probe of the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. ‘We demand a Hariri commission-style investigation’, Zardari told reporters. ‘We are writing to the United Nations for an international probe into her martyrdom’. With her party openly ridiculing government assertions that she had died by hitting her car sunroof on Thursday — and not from bullet or shrapnel wounds in the attack — Zardari said he had denied permission for an autopsy. He said he had lived in Pakistan ‘long enough to know’ how it would have been handled”. This AFP report is here.

More Benazir post-mortem

The AP had a fuller version of comments quoted yesterday from Bhutto’s spokeswoman Sherry Rehman, who had been with Benazir when she was shot and rode with her as she was rushed to the hospital:
“She was bleeding profusely, as she had received a bullet wound in her neck. My car was full of blood. Three doctors at the hospital told us that she had received bullet wounds. I was among the people who gave her a final bath. We saw a bullet wound in the back of her neck,” she said. “What the government is saying is actually dangerous and nonsensical. They are pouring salt on our wounds. There are no findings, they are just lying.”

The same AP story reported that Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema, who gave the press conference saying — preposterously — that Benazir died from banging her head on a lever of the sun roof in the car in which she was riding, “stood by the government’s version of events, and said Bhutto’s party was free to exhume her body for an autopsy…[And he] defended the government’s ability to carry out its investigation. He said an independent judicial probe should be completed within seven days of the appointment of its presiding judge. ‘This is not an ordinary criminal matter in which we require assistance of the international community. I think we are capable of handling it’, he said”.

At-largely here shows photos shown on Pakistan’s Dawn TV of the assassin – clean-shaven, in a suit, with sunglasses (could it be a woman, Larisa asks?). Comments on democraticunderground here say that the suicide bomber, with white fabric over his(?) head, stays right behind the person with the gun:

image of Bhutto assassin firing - from Dawn News TV

image of Bhutto assassin from Dawn News TV


Meanwhile, the same AP story added, “White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Pakistan had not officially requested U.S. help. ‘It’s a responsibility of the government of Pakistan to ensure that the investigation is thorough. If Pakistani authorities ask for assistance we would review the request’, he said. A senior U.S. official, however, said Pakistan was already ‘discussing with other governments as to how best the investigation can be handled’. With the United States, the discussions ‘are about what we can offer and what the Pakistanis want. Having some help to make sure international questions are answered is definitely an option’, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because no agreement had yet come from the discussions. There was no immediate confirmation from Pakistani officials”. This AP report is posted here.

One of the things I’ve been wondering about is why Benazir studied for two Bachelor’s degrees — the first from Harvard, the second from Oxford in the U.K. — instead of going for a Master’s. Then, a New York Times story made me realize that it was all about networking, about making contacts, rather than earning one degree or another. (But a second bachelor’s degree would also be a bit easier than going for a Master’s … especially if Benazir is one of those girls who just want to have fun.)

The NYTimes article today, entitled How Bhutto Won Washington, reported that “Ms. Bhutto, the Pakistani opposition leader and two-time prime minister, who was assassinated in Rawalpindi on Thursday as she campaigned for the office a third time, had a more extensive network of powerful friends in the capital’s political and media elite than almost any other foreign leader. Over the years, she scrupulously cultivated those friends, many from her days at Harvard and Oxford. She was rewarded when her connections — at the White House, in Congress and within the foreign policy establishment — helped propel her into power in Pakistan … She arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1969 as a primly dressed 16-year-old, bewildered by American customs … But Ms. Bhutto adapted, and quickly befriended not only Mr. [Peter W. Galbraith, identified in the NYTimes piece as “a former United States ambassador and a longtime friend of Ms. Bhutto’s”] Galbraith but E. J. Dionne and Michael Kinsley, now both columnists for The Post, and Walter Isaacson, the president of the Aspen Institute and a former managing editor of Time. By the time she got to Oxford, Ms. Bhutto drove a sports car, and she soon became president of the Oxford Union debating society. ‘I remember her being very intense’, Mr. Isaacson recalled. ‘But she had this really big smile, and she had this ability to be charming’. Ms. Bhutto’s first important trip to Washington was in the spring of 1984, when Mr. Galbraith, then a Democratic staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acted as her host and tutor. By then she was 30 years old and scarred from the bloody politics back home. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been president and prime minister of Pakistan but was hanged in 1979 on the orders of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military ruler. Ms. Bhutto, who had spent months in prison and years under house arrest, was now leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party of her father and determined to oust General Zia. Her goal in Washington was to persuade conservative Reagan administration officials that they would be better off with her in power. It was not going to be easy: Ms. Bhutto’s father was known for his fiery anti-Western rhetoric, and she had marched against the Vietnam War at Harvard. ‘What she was up against was her reputation of being this anti-American radical’, Mr. Galbraith said. ‘So we spent a lot of time talking about what messages she needed to convey’. In meetings with key members of Congress at the time — among them Senator Charles H. Percy, the Illinois Republican who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Representative Stephen J. Solarz of Brooklyn, who was a senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee — Ms. Bhutto, under Mr. Galbraith’s tutelage, expressed her support for democracy and the mujahedeen ‘freedom fighters’ who were battling the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. ‘She was this completely charming, beautiful woman who could flatter the senators, and who could read their political concerns, who could persuade them that she would much better serve American interests in Afghanistan than Zia’, Mr. Galbraith said. On that same trip, Mr. Galbraith introduced Ms. Bhutto to Mark Siegel, a political operative who had been executive director of the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Siegel was taken with Ms. Bhutto and supported her cause. He became a lobbyist for the government of Pakistan when Ms. Bhutto was in power. Most recently he was her collaborator on a book scheduled for publication in 2008. ‘I started to walk the halls of Congress with her in 1984, and she developed poise and confidence and maturity’, Mr. Siegel said. ‘She also understood how important these relationships were’. Still, he said, ‘I would have dinner parties at my house in the beginning, and it was not so easy to get journalists and congressmen and senators to come’. That changed in November 1988, when Ms. Bhutto’s party won a plurality in Parliament in the Pakistani elections but fell short of a majority. As Mr. Galbraith tells it, Reagan administration officials went to Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Pakistan’s acting president, and told him that since Ms. Bhutto commanded the most votes, he would have to invite her to form a government. Ms. Bhutto became prime minister on Dec. 2. ‘And that was the direct result of her networking, of her being able to persuade the Washington establishment, the foreign policy community, the press, the think tanks, that she was a democrat, that she was a moderate, that she was going to be against the Soviets in Afghanistan’, Mr. Galbraith said … Although Ms. Bhutto was twice expelled from office on charges of corruption, she kept up her visits to Washington, usually several a year. She would call on administration officials and members of Congress willing to see her as well as reporters and editors at The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Soon her American Christmas card list, excluding people in government and Congress, was up to 375 names. ‘She understood the nature of political life, which is to stay in touch with people whether you’re in or out of office’, said Karl F. Inderfurth, the former assistant secretary of state for South Asia who attended a dinner for Ms. Bhutto at the Willard Hotel on her last trip to Washington, in September. ‘She was a superb political operative’. Like other foreign leaders, Ms. Bhutto engaged a public relations firm to arrange meetings for her with administration officials, members of Congress and journalists. For the first six months of 2007, the firm Burson-Marsteller took in fees of close to $250,000 for work on behalf of Ms. Bhutto”. This NYTimes analysis is published here.

Another NYTimes article, an opinion piece, said that “Much has been made since her death of her apparent recklessness. But she had done her calculations and reached the conclusion that the only way she could rally her supporters was by going to them. ‘She wasn’t as reckless as people are making her out to be’, the former police officer told me over the phone. ‘The bulge that you saw under her shalwar kameez wasn’t extra pounds that she had put on during exile. She always wore a bulletproof vest in public’.”

Well, but she also put on some extra pounds, and you don’t need to look at her midriff to see it — it was evident in her face, and neck, and hands.

Anyway, this same NYTimes piece reported that “In the London press conference [just before her return], she was asked about her deal with Mr. Musharraf, which was going to allow her to return without facing charges for the rampant corruption that occurred under her watch. It was a question that had become the bane of her existence. Suddenly, her calculated, irritated voice mellowed and she spoke like the naïve, passionate activist I had seen as a child: ‘I lost my father. Both my brothers were killed violently. Scores of my party workers have died in the struggle for democracy, and now our citizens are being killed indiscriminately every day. We have to stop this. And in order to stop this I’ll talk to anyone that I have to‘ … Throughout her career there were attempts to portray her as a Westernized woman of questionable character. Shortly after her death, I was talking with another friend, one who had never thought much of her. ‘Remember those leaflets we used to collect before her election?’ he asked. He was referring to the 1988 election campaign, when her political rivals hired planes to throw leaflets with photographs that were doctored to show her wearing bikinis and miniskirts and dancing at college parties. It did not stop the people from voting her into power. For Pakistan’s military-mullah establishment, she always remained a bad girl. Not just any ordinary privileged heir to a political dynasty, but a girl half the nation swooned over; a sharp political operator, a speaker who even in her stilted Urdu could have a million people dance to the wave of her hand. And she was not a revolutionary by a long shot — but she could bring people to her rallies, and more important, polling stations by promising them jobs and reasonable electricity bills. On Thursday a heartbroken Bhutto-lover called and left a teary message on my voice mail. He just wanted to share his grief, but reminded me of something else: ‘She might have lost her political battle, but look at it this way. She raised three kids, took care of an ailing mother and still managed to stay in South Asia’s most notorious arranged marriage’.” This opinion piece in the NYTimes is published here.

Juan Cole compares Hilary Clinton and Obama on Benazir's assassination

Juan Cole has posted his comments comparing the reactions to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination by two American Democratic candidates for President, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, on his blog, Informed Comment, today — starting with Hillary Clinton’s comments in her interview Friday with Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Situation Room:
“I don’t think the Pakistani government at this time under President Musharraf has any credibility at all. They have disbanded an independent judiciary, they have oppressed a free press. Therefore, I’m calling for a full, independent, international investigation, perhaps along the lines of what the United Nations has been doing with respect to the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri in Lebanon. I think it is critically important that we get answers and really those are due first and foremost to the people of Pakistan, not only those who were supportive of Benazir Bhutto and her party, but every Pakistani because we cannot expect to move toward stability without some reckoning as to who was responsible for this assassination.

Therefore, I call on President Musharraf and the Pakistani government to realize that this is in the interests of Pakistan to understand whether or not it was al Qaeda or some other offshoot extremist group that is attempting to further destabilize and even overthrow the Pakistani government, or whether it came from within, either explicitly or implicitly, the security forces or the military in Pakistan. The thing I’ve not been able to understand, Wolf – I have met with President Musharraf, I obviously knew Benazir Bhutto and admired her leadership – is that President Musharraf, in every meeting I have had with him, the elites in Pakistan who still wield tremendous power plus the leadership of the military act as though they can destabilize Pakistan and retain their positions; their positions of privilege, their positions of authority. That is not the way it will work. I am really calling on them to recognize that the world deserves the answer; the Bhutto family deserves the answer, but this is in the best interest of the Pakistani people and the state of Pakistan …

Blitzer: Senator, just to be precise; you want a United Nations international tribunal, or commission of inquiry, whatever you want to call it, along the lines of the investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri?

HRC: There are other institutions that are international that have credibility, like INTERPOL and others. It doesn’t have to be the exact model of the Hariri investigation but it needs to be international, it needs to be independent, it needs to have credibility and nothing that would happen inside of Pakistan would. I’m reluctant to say it should be an American investigation where we send our law enforcement personnel, because I’m not sure that would have credibility for a different reason. So that’s why I’m calling for an independent international investigation”...

Juan Cole adds: “Barack Obama objected to Clinton’s call for a UN special inquiry, saying that ‘It is important to us to not give the idea that Pakistan is unable to handle its own affairs’. While Obama’s concern for Pakistani sovereignty is admirable, Clinton’s suggestion of a United Nations commission would, I think, be quite popular in Pakistan except in military circles … And it is certainly the case that the Pakistani public would be more likely to believe a UN commission than it would to believe Pervez Musharraf on this issue”.  Juan Cole’s comments on Clinton’s and Obama’s response to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination are posted here.


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.