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Pakistan Reader# 703, 27 December 2023

Remembering Benazir



The assassination of Benazir engulfed the country in civil unrest with her supporters participating in rallies as she was laid to rest at her family g

Femy Francis

On 27 December 2023, the Sindh government declared a public holiday as the country mourned the death of former Prime Minister and beloved leader Benazir Bhutto. Sixteen years ago today, Benazir was assassinated while addressing an election rally at Liaquat Bagh, as Pakistan was set to face the general elections.  Benazir’s death sent shock waves around the country as the public grieved the loss of their leader. Even today, Pakistan grieves the loss of not only a leader but of a different future that Pakistan could have had under her regime.

The fateful day and the days leading to it
On 18 October 2007, Benazir returned to Pakistan from her self-imposed exile of eight years to participate in the forthcoming general elections of 2008. She was welcomed with fanfare with tens of thousands of people present to support her return. The joy of her return did not last long as the gathering quickly turned catastrophic when two bombs exploded near the vehicle carrying Benazir. The attack missed her but killed 139 and injured 250 of her supporters.

On 27 October 2007, Benazir had finished her rally at Rawalpindi and was approaching her convoy when she was shot by an individual who blew himself up after. This shooter and suicide bomber was a 15-year-old boy named Bilal who according to the Ministry of Interior, Pakistan was part of the terror attack orchestrated by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The events of the day were questioned by several as the mystery surrounding the attack grew with the hurried clearing of the crime scene and the ill-timed changes in the members of the local body and bureaucracy.

Getting Away with Murder: Controversies
The assassination of Benazir engulfed the country in civil unrest with her supporters participating in rallies as she was laid to rest at her family graveyard at Naudero of Sindh. While the Pakistan People’s Party came to power with a coalition government after her death, the demand for an independent investigation grew stronger. This is when one of the prominent suspects and military dictator General Pervez Musharraf called for an investigation team from Scotland Yard of the UK. The report by the investigative team was vehemently opposed by her husband and former President Asif Ali Zardari who openly accused Pervez of attack.

The demands for further investigation grew and the UN Fact-Finding Mission was sent by the then UN Secretary General Bank Ki-Moon. The report published on the mission was vague and was again rejected by Asif Ali Zardari on grounds of lack of effort and no substance present in the report.

After a decade of the incident, an anonymous General claimed that the people from within the establishment could have been involved in the assassination of Benazir. When Pervez was asked the same question if any rouge elements from the establishment could have been involved, he was quoted as saying: “Possibility. Yes indeed. Because the society is polarized on religious lines.” These statements were startling as for the first time a possible involvement of the establishment was admitted, especially by one of the main suspects. Pervez though clearly steered away from the allegation on him and argued that: “A lady who is in known to be inclined towards the West is seen suspiciously by those elements.” Additionally, Pervez was also accused of threatening Benazir before she arrived from her exile. PPP Chairman and Benazir’s son,  Bilawal Bhutto Zardari also blamed Pervez and claimed that the latter exploited the situation to assassinate his mother by purposefully sabotaging the security to aid the terrorists.

Furthermore, discrepancies were observed with the sudden change in the route of her return, the haste washing of the crime scene, and one of the suspects still roaming free in Afghanistan after abetting the culmination of a high-profile murder. While others who assisted Bilal are under custody there was a trail of cover-up that followed the events. The BBC investigation “Benazir Bhutto assassination: How Pakistan covered up killing,” claims that two others, Nadir and Nasrullah Khan who assisted Bilal were shot dead at military checkpoints in 2008. They were part of the Taliban-supported seminary Haqqania madrassa. Abad ur Rehman, a former student of the seminary and the alleged bomb maker was killed in 2010, according to BBC. Another controversial death was that of Benazir’s security guard Khalid Shahenshah who was found to have made strange hand movements before the assassination of Benazir on the stage. No proper explanation has been found for the same and he was also shot dead in 2008 outside his home in Karachi. The trail of strange encounters continues as one of the alleged plotters Ikramullah is said to be alive and living in eastern Afghanistan as a military leader.

Legacy of Benazir and PPP’s future
She was the first woman leader of a Muslim country and was not only well respected and regarded within her party but by her opposition too as a visionary and resilient woman who dauntlessly faced the authoritarian regime under General Pervez Musharaff. Her term as a Prime Minister was cut short twice as both times, she was charged with corruption charges while her brother was assassinated during her second term after which she left for exile.  Her competence as a leader can be showcased through her being welcoming of these short terms. The Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) aimed at providing unconditional cash transfers to economically stressed families and only made women beneficiaries. BISP still stands relevant as Bilawal used the same to provide for the suffering families after the 2022 floods. The government formed after her death brought several landmark provisions in her name like the social transfer system and the restoration of the 1973 constitution which was revoked by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

As the elections are coming close, PPP is rightly placed to further the values propagated by Benazir. The reality of the party is that it has lost the gusto and popularity that it once had under Benazir and her father. Bilawal is steadily building his political career as he has moved his focus towards the young population of Pakistan. PPP also plans to unveil its economic initiatives to help the country out of the current crisis by proposing for an expanded BISP and economic provisions for agricultural development. While the party has much work to do to find a standing again as a national party, it has been able to garner strong support in the province of Sindh and has once again become a vital party that can change the tide of elections.

Today Pakistan once again mourns the death of its cherished leader Benazir as they remember the woman and leader who stood for democracy in the face of authoritarianism. Her spirits remained high even after her government was forced to leave twice after coming to power. With the elections coming the country stands at a crucial juncture between what has been and can be. The people of Pakistan today reminisce of her as the bright future that got away, a different present that they could have had. She is and will be remembered as the missed chance that could have changed the trajectory of the country. 

References
Owen Bennett Jones, “Benazir Bhutto assassination: How Pakistan covered up killing,” BBC, 27 December 2017
Carlotta Gall and Salman Masood, “Bomb Attack Kills Scores in Pakistan as Crowds Celebrate Bhutto’s Return,” The New York Times, 19 October 2007
The Making of Benazir Income Support Program,” University of Karachi, 30 March 2023
Shakeel Anjum, “Even after 16 years BB’s assassination remains unsolved,” The News International, 27 December 2023
Sherry Rehman, “Benazir and the Black Swan,” The News International, 27 December 2023
Dr Sharmila Faruqi, “Bhutto’s legacy,” The News International, 27 December 2023
Bashir Riaz, “Stars never die,” The News International, 27 December 2023
Zahid Hussain, “Remembering Benazir,” Dawn, 27 December 2023
Zardari pays tribute to Benazir Bhutto on 16th death anniversary,” The Nation, 27 December 2023

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