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Getting Away With Murder

Benazir Bhutto's Assassination and the Politics of Pakistan

by Heraldo Muñoz

Hardcover, 256 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, List Price: $26.95 |


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Getting Away With Murder
Benazir Bhutto's Assassination and the Politics of Pakistan
Heraldo Muñoz

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Book Summary

The lead commissioner of the United Nations investigation into the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who offered a secular, democratic hope, recounts his year-long investigation into this tragic event that forever changed U.S.-Pakistani relations.

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'Getting Away With Murder': A Study Of Benazir Bhutto's Death

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Getting Away With Murder


In the southern-hemisphere summer of January 2009, while my wife and I vacationed in Chile at a cousin's home by a calm river near the town of Valdivia, I got an urgent call from the office of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York. His chief of staff, Ambassador Vijay Nambiar, transmitted a request from the secretary-general: Would I be able to lead a commission to investigate the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto?

Nambiar said that Secretary-General Ban had agreed to constitute the commission at the request of the Pakistani government, presided over at that point by Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari. This commission would carry out an inquiry to shed light on the facts and circumstances of the former prime minister's murder and would not be an international tribunal with the obligation to establish criminal responsibilities. There would be two other high-level commissioners, yet to be determined, but the secretary-general wanted first to announce the creation of the commission and its chairperson.

I responded that I would have to consult the president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, as well as inform the foreign minister. It was highly unusual that a sitting ambassador to the UN would be entrusted with such a delicate duty. Generally, heads of UN commissions are former presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, or ambassadors. Nambiar requested a response as soon as possible.

I had serious doubts about accepting such high responsibility. The case looked like a lose-lose situation; any conclusion could leave many sides disappointed or even angry. I could not force anyone to testify, my powers would be limited, and public expectations would be high. Moreover, Pakistani political culture is characterized by rumors and conspiracy theories, as Pakistani writer Ali Sethi suggested in an essay about the terrorist attack in Lahore against the Sri Lankan national cricket team. While interviewing people in the street about the culprits, he was told that it could have been the work of "terrorists or criminals. ... But it could be the agencies. It could be the government. It could be India also."

I had visited the country and read about it, but I was far from being an expert, and I came from a nation geographically and culturally distant from Pakistan. Then, I reasoned, Chile did not have any hidden agenda, interests, or prejudices regarding Pakistan — a plus in the eyes of the UN and the Islamabad government. The task would be dangerous; but the secretary-general had probably taken into consideration, when offering me this challenge, that I had presided over the Al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council during 2003 and 2004.

President Bachelet reacted very positively when I consulted her on how to respond to the secretary-general's request. "It's a recognition of your personal trajectory and an honor for Chile," she said. "Go ahead and accept." I thus felt compelled to take on this difficult task.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon informed the Security Council on February 2, 2009, that, after consultations with members of the council and as requested by the government of Pakistan, he had decided to establish "an international commission in connection with the assassination on 27 December 2007 of former Prime Minister of Pakistan Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto." The commission, he stated, would be composed of "a panel of three eminent personalities having the appropriate experience and reputation for probity and impartiality." In an addendum, the secretary-general outlined the functioning conditions and responsibilities of the Commission of Inquiry. In a letter dated February 3, the president of the Security Council "took note" of the decision of the secretary-general and made mention of the intention to "submit the report of the commission to the Security Council for information."

On February 10, the secretary-general — having just returned from a trip that had taken him, among other places, to Afghanistan and Pakistan — announced that the UN commission to investigate the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto would be headed by me. Ban added that he had discussed the matter in Islamabad with President Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani. My designation had leaked one week earlier when the ambassador of India to the United Nations, Nirupam Sen, had revealed to a news agency that I would lead the Commission of Inquiry.

I recalled having met Benazir Bhutto in the early '90s, while I was ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), at a seminar on democratic transitions held in the US Congress. We were on the same panel; she spoke about Pakistan, and I gave a presentation on Chile. She was the star of the event and seemed poised and confident. We were able to chat for a while. I said that while doing my PhD at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, I had often discussed her father's 1977 military overthrow and arrest with my good Pakistani friend and classmate, Mustapha Kemal Pasha, who attended all the solidarity demonstrations that I organized against the Pinochet dictatorship and the 1973 coup that had overthrown Chilean president Salvador Allende. Benazir told me that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto admired Allende and knew perfectly well that the United States had plotted with rightists in Chile to oust his socialist government. The rest of our dialogue was a brief exchange of pleasantries during our respective lectures.

Now, almost twenty years later, I would lead the inquiry into the assassination of the charming and intelligent woman I had met at that seminar in Washington DC. I vaguely remembered having seen on TV a grainy video of the moment of her assassination. I had then thought that security must have lapsed, because I recalled her waving to a surrounding crowd without solid protection.

Benazir had not been born a politician. She had always wanted to be a diplomat and preferred intellectual debates to the corridors or smoked-filled rooms of power politics. But the killing of her father by the Zia ul-Haq dictatorship changed her. She became a determined daughter ready to take on the military dictator who had eliminated her father; in the process, she evolved into a political leader and inheritor of the Bhutto mantle. Benazir Bhutto became, per the title of her autobiography, a Daughter of Destiny. To be sure, she changed many more times in the coming years, twice becoming prime minister, facing exile, dealing with the realities of world politics, and negotiating with dictator Musharraf a deal to return home after more than a decade into her second exile.

Born on June 21, 1953, Benazir was also a daughter of fortune, the eldest of four children in a well-to-do family in the southern province of Sindh. Her English governess called her "Pinkie," as did the rest of her family, and at a young age Benazir enrolled in an elite Catholic school. English was her first language, her Urdu was less fluent, and she barely spoke any Sindhi. Her world opened up when she attended Radcliffe College and, in her words, was "forced ... to grow up." But Benazir was a woman of contradictions: modern-minded, with degrees from Harvard and Oxford, she accepted an arranged marriage to scale the ladder of power in the conservative political culture of Pakistan. One writer characterized her as "a feudal princess with the aristocratic sense of entitlement that came with owning great tracts of the country and the Western—leaning tastes that such a background tends to give."

Benazir Bhutto was one of Pakistan's most important political figures, a respected world leader, and the leading stateswoman in the Islamic world. The West, despite occasional doubts about her abilities to govern, largely considered her a progressive figure who could advance the cause of democracy and counterterrorism in her native country. Bhutto was also hated and feared by many in Pakistan, particularly by the so-called "Establishment" — sections within the army and security services, certain businessmen, and Islamist extremists. They disliked and distrusted her popularity, her ties to the West, and her modernizing political agenda. Her political adversaries leveled accusations of corruption against her and her family, particularly her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, while the media and other skeptics criticized her lavish lifestyle.

Bhutto's murder occurred shortly after her return to Pakistan in the midst of an electoral campaign. The United States and Great Britain had facilitated her return. She knew that she was a security target but felt compelled to go back despite the dangers and despite the fact that her father, Zulfikar, and two brothers had died unnatural deaths. There was no shortage of people and groups in her home country that wanted Benazir Bhutto dead and had the power and means to eliminate her.

Against the backdrop of a Pakistani political history of unconsolidated democracy, betrayals, corruption, unsolved political assassinations, religious radicalism, and foreign influence — -particularly that of the United States — Benazir returned in order to try, once again, to rally her people for the cause of democracy, secularism, and moderation. As a proud member of the Bhutto clan — a family that dates back to grandfather Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto, a Sindhi feudal lord who had been the dewaan (prime minister) of the state of Junagadh in the Indian colonial government before partition — she felt she had no other choice; it was her destiny and legacy to return to her homeland. Most observers believed Benazir would confront an insurmountable challenge in trying to restore democracy to Pakistan, and friends feared her days were numbered the moment she boarded that flight home from Dubai on October 17, 2007.

A few months after my designation as chairman of the Commission of Inquiry, the UN completed the team, naming two additional commissioners: former attorney general of Indonesia Marzuki Darusman and former deputy commissioner of the Irish Police Peter Fitzgerald. In the process of investigation, I became good friends with both of them, with our chief of staff, Mark Quarterman, and the analysts and other members of the team.

This book is based on the behind-the-scenes evidence and experiences we encountered during the yearlong inquiry, which culminated in the presentation of a report on April 15, 2010, which had an important international impact. This book makes abundant use of this report in chapters 7 and 8 but goes well beyond it, supplemented by my own extensive research into the assassination and its context and by my reflections on larger matters, like the US-Pakistan ties.

In fact, this book is as much about the Bhutto murder investigation as it is about the broader context of modern Pakistan and the critical US-Pakistani relationship. Benazir's tragic death is an entry point for a much bigger story: Pakistan's postindependence evolution and the influence of key outside actors, including the United States.

International media pointed to my background as an active opponent of dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile, as well as my political and diplomatic trajectory, as a key factor behind my designation and as a component in producing what was seen as a substantive and unbiased report. I would like to think that my experience prepared me to observe and penetrate the political and social context of Benazir Bhutto's assassination and to focus on the substantive drivers of the crime.

This book is an examination of political life and death in Pakistan — not just a look at the narrow subject matter or a treatment limited to statements by political actors. This is my personal view of the murder of Benazir Bhutto and her times and in no way compromises or necessarily reflects the views of the United Nations or those of the members of the Commission of Inquiry. This is a critical analysis of the assassination of a major political leader, her country, and her circumstances.

Excerpted from Getting Away with Murder: Benazir Bhutto's Assassination and the Politics of Pakistan by Heraldo Muñoz. Copyright 2014 by Heraldo Munoz. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.