Few Believe in Government’s Explanation of Bhutto’s Death as Investigation Deepens


As the probe into Benazir Bhutto’s assassination deepens, many Pakistanis already have strongly held theories about who killed her. The problem for President Pervez Musharraf’s government: Few share its version of what happened.

Iktiadar Ali Shah, a 52-year-old who served in the former prime minister’s security detail in the 1980s, says he doesn’t doubt how Ms. Bhutto died. He says that while moving toward her white bulletproof car as it crawled through throngs of supporters after a Dec. 27 campaign rally, he heard three or four shots from two guns. Then Mr. Shah saw a huge blast, which he suspects was triggered by remote control to simulate a suicide bomber. His chief suspect: Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.

Another man, one of many who have gathered at makeshift memorials for Ms. Bhutto in this army-garrison town outside the capital, Islamabad, has a very different theory.

“This was the West’s attempt to destabilize our country and take control of our nuclear weapons,” he shouts, standing amid the scattered rose petals to mark the spot of her death. The man, balding and dressed in a checkered sports coat, refuses to give his name. “Call me Pakistan,” he says.

Controversy, suspicion and conspiracy: They are an inevitable part of sensational deaths, from John F. Kennedy to Princess Diana. In the wake of Ms. Bhutto’s assassination – and the government’s investigation – conspiracy theories have become a national obsession here, further eroding confidence in Mr. Musharraf’s crisis-racked presidency.

To try to allay public skepticism and restore some credibility, the government has called in a team from Scotland Yard to help its investigation. The British team has inspected the site where Ms. Bhutto died and also the mangled vehicle that carried her. They will be trying to clarify what happened by compiling a report that is expected to be released in the coming weeks, possibly ahead of parliamentary elections. Those elections recently were pushed back to Feb. 18 from yesterday, following unrest sparked by Ms. Bhutto’s death.

“We should all wait for the results of investigation, which the government will share with the people,” Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told a regular media briefing yesterday.

President Musharraf himself, after an initial silence, has said he isn’t satisfied with the investigation and has recently backed away from from an early official version of what happened. In an interview Sunday with CBS television, Mr. Musharraf acknowledged Ms. Bhutto may have been shot—a view that contrasted with the government’s initial contention that she had died from smashing her head against a sunroof lever during the suicide blast. Mr. Musharraf met with Scotland Yard investigators yesterday and promised not to meddle in their probe, said Mr. Cheema.

But Pakistani officials, including Mr. Musharraf, have stuck by their allegations that Islamist militants were behind this attack, as well as an Oct. 18 suicide bombing in Karachi. The earlier attack narrowly missed Ms. Bhutto but killed more than 150 people.

Officials from Ms. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party have rejected the initial government findings. Instead of Scotland Yard, they have called for an independent investigation from the United Nations. They have also faulted the government for hosing down the crime scene just hours after the assassination and for allegedly failing to provide adequate security for Ms. Bhutto.

“It all points to a massive coverup,” asserts Farhatullah Babar, a PPP spokesman.

Ms. Bhutto’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, said in London yesterday that only a U.N. investigation would satisfy him.

“We do not believe that an investigation under the authority of the Pakistani government has the necessary transparency,” said the 19-year-old, who was chosen as chairman of his mother’s party after her death. “Already, so much forensic evidence has been destroyed.”

PPP officials say they are skeptical that the government’s chief suspect, Baitullah Mehsud, an Islamic militant based in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region, plotted the assassination. Through emissaries after both attacks on Ms. Bhutto, Mr. Mehsud told the PPP leadership he was fighting government security forces in Pakistan’s northwest, not targeting Ms. Bhutto, according to Mr. Babar, the PPP spokesman.

Ms. Bhutto has long vowed to rid Pakistan of Islamist militants. And letters from her security adviser, Rehman Malik, also alerted the government’s interior ministry to threats from extremists. But doubts over the government’s version of events runs deep, largely because of plummeting confidence in Mr. Musharraf.

Having purged Pakistan’s courts of unfriendly justices, clamped down on the media and detained scores of political opponents over the past year, Mr. Musharraf has come to the point where many Pakistanis appear more willing to take the word of an Islamic militant over his.

“The Taliban wouldn’t target a woman,” insists an 84-year-old university researcher in Islamabad. “It’s 100% Musharraf.”

The public suspicions have left Mr. Musharraf angry. At a recent news conference, he declared that he wasn’t raised in a family that plotted and killed people. Muhammed Ali Saif, a lawyer and adviser to the president, recalled his boss’s more sardonic response to speculation that he had dispatched a squad of suicide assassins to take out a charismatic rival.

“People think I killed Benazir,” Mr. Saif recalls Mr. Musharraf saying. “I wish I had such supporters who would blow themselves up for me.”

But Mr. Musharraf’s protests haven’t stopped speculation over how Ms. Bhutto died, as well as who is to blame. Aside from the gunshots and remote-control-bomb theory subscribed to by Mr. Shah, others suspect more sophisticated weaponry was involved. Local newspapers have suggested a team of snipers could have used long-distance laser guns to kill Ms. Bhutto.

Earlier stranger-than-fiction deaths of Pakistani political figures, including those in the Bhutto family, have lent credibility to the most far-fetched theories. Ms. Bhutto had no shortage of political enemies—some of whom are now subjects of scrutiny by the public, if not the police.

One is Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who is the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League faction allied with Mr. Musharraf. His father was assassinated by a terror group associated with Murtaza Bhutto, Ms. Bhutto’s brother, according to Hamid Gul, the former director of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, who says he has read a confidential file on the killing. In 1996, Ms. Bhutto’s brother was shot and killed in turn.

Mr. Hussain’s father was a confidant of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who hanged Ms. Bhutto’s father, also a former prime minister, and who jailed Ms. Bhutto and her mother. (Gen. Zia died in a mysterious 1988 air crash. Some have speculated the cause of the crash was linked to a last-minute cargo addition: a crate of mangoes).

Mr. Hussain’s supporters reject speculation of his involvement in Ms. Bhutto’s assassination.

“The blame game should stop,” said the spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League, Tariq Azim. “People have to be patient, wait for the investigation to be completed.”

Ms. Bhutto died near the same municipal park where Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was murdered in 1951. Outside the park, now named for Liaquat Bagh, bouquets of flowers are piled near billboards with Ms. Bhutto’s image.

Government investigators have recovered a severed head of a young male with a light mustache from the crime scene—a detail that would appear to reinforce the theory of a suicide bomber. In newspaper announcements, the government has offered a reward for anyone with information about the identity of the head.

“The head isn’t important,” counters Mr. Babar, the PPP spokesman. “What’s important is finding the heart and the hands behind this plot.”

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on January 9