LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistan's government said Friday that it would revive its criminal investigation into the murder of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto after a United Nations report blamed the former military-led government of Pervez Musharraf for failing to provide adequate security for her.
If it investigates vigorously, the fragile civilian government of Pakistani President Asif Zardari almost certainly would clash with the country's powerful military and with the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, and that could hinder Pakistani cooperation with the U.S. against al Qaida and the Taliban.
The U.N. inquiry, released Thursday, called for an investigation into the possible role of the military and its intelligence apparatus in Bhutto's December 2007 assassination. It also disclosed that Pakistan's spy agencies had "severely hampered" the initial probe.
Zardari, Bhutto's widower who took over her Pakistan People's Party after her death and led it to victory in a February 2008 election, has been criticized for supporting the U.N. inquiry. Now his government plans to use the leads and recommendations of the U.N. report to revive a domestic criminal investigation.
"The government of the day was responsible first for the criminal neglect in providing security to Benazir Bhutto, and second by hushing up available evidence to cover up the crime," said presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar. "Persons named in the report for negligence or complicity in the conspiracy will be investigated, and cases also brought against them."
Aides to former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who led the country from 1999 to 2008, angrily rejected the U.N. findings. Musharraf was a close ally of former president George W. Bush, who sent billions of dollars of U.S. aid to Pakistan that helped support the Pakistani dictator.
Musharraf's official probe blamed jihadists led by then-Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud for her murder, an assessment the Bush administration also shared.
Bhutto's party was convinced that the Pakistani police were in no position to examine the role of the military's spy agencies, led by the ISI, which has longstanding links with jihadist groups, including the Taliban.
Bhutto was killed as she left a political rally in Rawalpindi after a man in the crowd first shot at her and then blew himself up next to her vehicle.
The director general of military intelligence at the time ordered the scene of Bhutto's assassination to be hosed down immediately, a cleanup that destroyed invaluable evidence, according to an unnamed source quoted in the U.N. report.
The U.N. report didn't name Bhutto's killers, but went much further than anyone had expected in criticizing the Musharraf regime and the military.
"One hopes that this report will contribute to halting the impunity with which Pakistan's intelligence agencies and non-state actors perpetrate abuses, including political assassination," said Ali Dayan Hasan, a South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-based advocacy group. "If a domestic inquiry had reached the same conclusions, with the PPP in power, it would have been dismissed as politicized."
However, said Hasan: "The reality of power in Pakistan precludes the perpetrators of this assassination being brought to book. This (report) is the closest we'll get."
Pakistan has been ruled by the military for about half its existence. The army chief remains the most powerful person in the country, with near complete control over security policy. The current army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, was elevated to that position a month before Bhutto's assassination. Before that, he was ISI chief.
Musharraf has said repeatedly that he wants to return from exile in London to re-enter Pakistani politics, but the U.N. inquiry will be a big setback.
"There were two assassination attempts on President Musharraf by the same suicide squads that killed Benazir Bhutto. Are we saying that Musharraf was responsible for the assassination attempts on himself?" said Rashid Qureshi, the former president's spokesman. "It's very strange. There's no logic behind this."
Fawad Chaudhry, Musharraf's attorney, said that at the time of Benazir Bhutto's death in December 2007, Musharraf had handed power to an interim government, which was overseeing elections, and he'd also given up his position of army chief.
"If there was any lapse, then it was the lapse of the interim government, not the president," said Chaudhry. "That's like, in Britain, holding the Queen responsibility for someone's murder."
The three-member U.N. inquiry team, headed by the Chilean ambassador to the U.N., Heraldo Munoz, began work last July and interviewed 250 people. Munoz disclosed Thursday at a press briefing in New York that Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state at the time of Bhutto's assassination and a key broker of her return to Pakistan from exile, refused to be interviewed.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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