A Credibility Deficit

Asked by a journalist if he had “blood on his hands,” General Pervez Musharraf said last week that it was “below my dignity” to reply, but his family background, beliefs and values were enough to prove that he was not involved in anyone’s murder. He may well be right.

People should have turned against the Al Qaeda and the extremist militants after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Instead, there was a wave of anger against the government. No ruler should ever have to answer the question whether or not he has blood on his hands.

The very fact that the question was even asked shows the depths to which the credibility of the present government has sunk. Pakistan’s rulers need to focus on mending their relationship with the people of Pakistan.

There is no doubt that there were many lapses in security arrangements for the slain popular opposition leader. The lapses that followed the assassination were even worse. Scotland Yard sleuths have now been brought in to conduct an investigation but forensic evidence that might have helped crack the mystery was washed out within hours of the incident.

Scotland Yard has had no major successes in resolving the numerous politically significant murder mysteries in Pakistan’s chequered history. When Bhutto brought in Scotland Yard detectives to help with the Murtaza Bhutto murder in 1996, it was expected that the impartial investigation would bring the finger-pointing and suspicion to an end. But Ms Bhutto’s government was dismissed in November 1996 and the day after the dismissal the Scotland Yard team was sent back to London without completing its inquiry or publishing a report.

What could have been the purpose of shutting down the Scotland Yard probe except to keep alive allegations aimed at the destruction of the reputation of Asif Ali Zardari and splitting the Bhutto family?

This time, too, the forensic evidence is gone before Scotland Yard could investigate. General Musharraf says that the decision to hose down the scene of the attack manifested “incompetence,” resulting from a desire to keep the place clean.

The US Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Boucher, always eager to harmonise his words with those of Pakistan’s ruling oligarchy, concurred. At a briefing for journalists he was asked why the government washed away all the evidence if it was not involved. Boucher said, “I have no idea but based on what I’ve heard from other incidents that seems to be standard practice, unfortunately.”

A little research, however, shows that it is neither standard practice to immediately wash out the site of a terrorist act nor is the ‘incompetence’ of the type seen in Karachi on October 18 (after the first attempt on Bhutto’s life) or in Rawalpindi on December 27 after her murder commonplace.

In fact, in all media reports tracked down by this columnist relating to earlier assassination attempts on high value Pakistani targets it is clearly stated that the police secured the area and collected DNA and other forensic evidence right after the attack.

A few days before the brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto, former Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao was targeted by a suicide bomber during Eid prayers on December 21, 2007. Wire services reported, “The worshippers rushed dozens of injured to a hospital while police sealed off the area and began gathering evidence.” Quite clearly the authorities in Charsadda are more competent than the ones in Karachi and Rawalpindi where Bhutto was the target.

On July 31, 2004, ‘prime minister’ Shaukat Aziz escaped an assassination attempt while on an election campaign. The suicide bomb attack was staged in Fatah Jang, a small town in northern Punjab, where he was contesting a by-election. At least six people, including Aziz’s driver, were killed and 45 injured.

News reports at the time quoted a senior police official as saying that “Aziz was in the car which had just started moving slowly amid a tight security cordon when the car driven by a suicide attacker detonated.” One could only wonder where the “tight security cordon” disappeared to when Benazir Bhutto faced her deadly attacker.

Other important assassination attempts were directed at General Musharraf on December 14 and December 25, 2003, both in Rawalpindi. The fact that attackers could twice get so close to the heavily guarded leader raised serious concerns about Musharraf’s security. “There has been a security lapse,” said Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed. The attack sites were secured on both occasions. DNA evidence was recovered.

The purpose of pointing out this record is not to further inflame passions that have erupted since Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. It is to point out to Pakistan’s arrogant establishment that its credibility problem is deeply rooted and is of its own making. If it really wants to set things right, forget about clever statements and smart TV interviews. Repair the damage by facing and telling the truth.

The article was published in Indian Express on January 9, 2008