WASHINGTON — Pakistan's former military regime failed to protect ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto despite knowing of numerous threats against her shortly before her assassination in December 2007, and then "severely hampered" the official investigation, a U.N. report said Thursday.
"Ms. Bhutto's assassination could have been prevented if adequate security measures had been taken," concluded the 65-page report by a three-member U.N. commission headed by Heraldo Munoz, the Chilean ambassador to the United Nations. The commission was launched at the Pakistani government's request.
The findings were a devastating indictment of the ousted dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf as well as of Pakistan's most powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the police of Punjab Province and the military headquarters city of Rawalpindi, where Bhutto was killed by a teenage suicide bomber on Dec. 27, 2007. The report cast doubt on the official Pakistani finding that the killing was ordered by Baitullah Mehsud, the late leader of the Pakistani Taliban, a coalition of extremists allied with their Afghan compatriots and al Qaida.
"It remains the responsibility of the Pakistani authorities to carry out a serious, credible criminal investigation that determines who conceived, ordered and executed this heinous crime of historic proportions, and brings those responsible to justice," the U.N. report said.
The U.S. intelligence community also blamed Bhutto's death on Mehsud, who was conducting a bloody campaign of suicide bombings and attacks aimed at replacing Pakistan's secular system of government with Islamic rule.
The findings could have implications for the current head of Pakistan's military, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, who was the ISI director at the time of the assassination. The Obama administration has cultivated strong ties with Kayani and the ISI as part of its strategy to eliminate al Qaida and Afghan Taliban leaders based in the Pakistani areas bordering war-torn Afghanistan. The U.N. commission cast a blame widely for Bhutto's inadequate protection.
"The responsibility for Ms. Bhutto's security on the day of her assassination rested with the federal government, the government of Punjab and the Rawalpindi District Police," the report said. "None of these entities took the necessary measures to respond to the extraordinary, fresh and urgent security risks that they knew she faced."
Those same agencies also failed to investigate the assassination properly, the report said.
"The investigation was severely hampered by intelligence agencies and other government officials, which impeded an unfettered search for the truth," the report found. "More significantly, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) conducted parallel investigations, gathering evidence and detaining suspects. Evidence gathered from such parallel investigations was selectively shared with police. "The commission believes that the failure of the police to investigate effectively Ms. Bhutto's assassination was deliberate," it continued. "The officials, in part fearing intelligence agencies' involvement, were unsure of how vigorously they ought to pursue actions, which they knew as professionals, they should have taken."
Unidentified Pakistani officials also tried to impede the U.N. inquiry, the report disclosed, saying that the commission "was mystified by the efforts of certain high-ranking government authorities to obstruct access to military and intelligence sources."
Bhutto died while departing a rally she held in a Rawalpindi park during a tumultuous parliamentary election campaign that threatened the military's hold on power. Bhutto had returned two months earlier after nine years in self-imposed exile under a U.S.-brokered deal intended to quell massive protests against Musharraf's authoritarian regime.
Twenty-four other people were killed and 91 injured when the 15-year-old suicide bomber detonated his explosives as Bhutto waved to well-wishers from the roof hatch of her armored vehicle as it drove out of Liaquat Bagh park.
"No one believes that this boy acted alone," the U.N. report said. The threats against her "came a number of sources; these included al Qaida, the Taliban, local jihadi groups and potentially from elements in the Pakistani Establishment."
The "Establishment" is a term used in Pakistan to describe an amorphous alliance of right-wing politicians, leading businessmen and former and current senior officers in the army, military and civilian intelligence agencies as well as the ISI.
Bhutto herself alleged that she faced a threat from two retired senior army officers, including a former ISI director, and a leading pro-Musharraf politician. All denied the charges.
Musharraf himself knew of numerous threats made against Bhutto even before she returned from her self-imposed exile on Oct. 18, 2007, when she narrowly escaped injury in a bomb attack on her convoy in the port city of Karachi, the report said.
"The federal government under General Musharraf, although fully aware of and tracking the serious threats to Ms. Bhutto, did little more than pass on those threats to her and to provincial authorities, and were not proactive in neutralizing them or ensuring that the security provided was commensurate to the threats," the report said. "This is especially grave given the attempt on her life in Karachi."
Actions by the Rawalpindi police, including the use of fire hoses to wash down the murder scene and the failure to collect and preserve evidence, "inflicted irreparable damage to the investigation," the report said.
The February 2008 elections ended nearly a decade of military rule and saw power pass to a coalition led by Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party under her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was elected the country's president.
Bhutto, the report noted, was only one among a number of prominent Pakistanis whose murders or deaths "in an untimely fashion" have never been properly investigated since the country's founding in 1947.
"This situation," it said, "has contributed to a widespread expectation of impunity in cases of political killings." ON THE WEB
The U.N. report MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2010