Unsolved and unhealed

December 26, 2021

Many questions about the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a two time prime minister, on December 27, 2007, remain unanswered

Unsolved and unhealed

The assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, one of the most tragic incidents in the history of Pakistan, is still shrouded in a confusing cobweb of mysteries. Official investigation of the crime was marred by two glaring oversights: one, lack of a post mortem examination; and two, the hurried hosing down of the crime scene by the police. Both are understood to have destroyed evidence that could be vital to investigation and prosecution of the most high-profile murder case in Pakistan’s political history.

This article is about the washing of the crime scene, which later gave rise to a host of conspiracy theories. After so many years, the question remains: why was the crime scene washed away in such a hurry? According to police record, the crime scene was washed only about an hour and half after the attack that killed the Pakistan Peoples Party chairperson.

On December 27, 2007, Benazir Bhutto’s cavalcade was attacked by a suicide bomber while it was slowly coming out of Liaqat Bagh, the venue of her last public meeting. As a result, 25 people, including Benazir Bhutto, were killed and more than 100 others were injured. DIG Saud Aziz, the city police officer, visited the scene shortly after the fatal explosion. Along with the Operations chief, SSP Yaseen Farooq, he then left for Rawalpindi General Hospital where Benazir Bhutto had been rushed for treatment. SP Khurram Shahzad, DSP Rana Shahid and Inspector Kashif Riaz, the SHO, remained at the crime scene. When Benazir Bhutto was declared dead, SP Khurram Shahzad grew apprehensive that the sight of blood at the crime scene could enrage PPP workers and the general public, who might resort to violence. He shared this fear with the CPO, who gave the permission to wash the scene once the SP and his team were satisfied with the collection of evidence. Dr A Rehman of 1122 then went ahead with the actual washing on the instructions of SP Khurram Shahzad.

Questions were raised later on the ‘hasty’ washing of the scene and the improper collection of evidence from there. Reports by the UN Commission and the Scotland Yard team expressed dissatisfaction on both counts. The UN Commission report said: “Hosing of the crime scene and the failure to collect and preserve evidence inflicted irreparable damage to the investigation”. The Scotland Yard reported that “the opportunity of a thorough forensic examination was lost”.

Importantly, a rumour then spread that the Rawalpindi CPO had ordered the washing of the crime scene at the behest of the then Military Intelligence director, Maj Gen Nadeem Ijaz. The UN Commission Report quoted a source as saying that the CPO had received a call from Army Headquarters to hose down the crime scene. Another source told the UN team that the MI chief had passed on these instructions to the CPO, directly or through some junior officer. However, the DG denied having given any such instructions. The CPO too refuted this allegation. It was, however, confirmed that personnel of intelligence agencies were present at the time of collection of evidence from the crime scene. The Rawalpindi MI head had also visited the crime scene at the time.

Questions were later raised over the hasty washing of the crime scene and the improper collection of evidence. The UN Commission and the Scotland Yard reports expressed dissatisfaction with these aspects of investigation. 

The CPO and other police officers reportedly claimed that hosing down the crime scene was standard procedure in Rawalpindi once sufficient evidence had been collected from the crime scene. They said it was considered prudent to wash it to avoid reaction from the furious party workers or the general public. Some officials said that the then ASP Ashfaq Anwar and DSP Rana Shahid were not in favour of washing the scene.

Three former inspectors general of police and two former additional IGs said, however, that the hurried hosing of the crime scene raised suspicion.

One of them stated that the crime scene needed to be preserved for a “reasonable period.” He said an investigation officer may have to visit it for a second time, even several times to collect more evidence in light of information they got from the witnesses or other sources. The officers denied that washing of the crime scene was a standard practice. Earlier, crime scenes had been preserved for several days following the two attempts on Gen Musharraf’s life in Rawalpindi.

Lawyer Najib Faisal Chaudhry says that though there was no specific law setting a timeframe for the preservation of the crime scene, all evidence had to be preserved. “Section 25.10 of Police Rules demands all possible steps to preserve the crime scene, to record particulars of and secure the presence of potential evidence,” he says. He adds that in high profile cases, a prolonged preservation may be necessary because it may not be possible to collect all evidence in one go. He finds it strange that the crime scene was washed within two hours.

Furthermore, under the rules the investigation officer or the investigation team examine and collect the evidence. In this particular case, this was done by the police officers on duty. Inspector Kashif Riaz was tasked with the collection of evidence and making the recoveries and recording those. As per record, SP Tahir Ayub, the then in charge of investigation, was not part of the process of collection of evidence and preservation of the crime scene. This, later, became a handicap for the investigation teams.

SP Khurram Shahzad was the supervisory officer on duty at the Liaqat Bagh jalsa under the supervision of SSP Yaseen Farooq, in charge of Operations. However, SP Khurram Shahzad talked to the CPO directly and the Operations SSP was not consulted regarding the decision to hose down the crime scene. The SSP, therefore, was not aware of the sufficiency or thoroughness of evidence collection from the crime scene.

The police officers’ claim of collection of “all available evidence” from the crime scene was to prove incorrect later. Two days after the incident, a Special Investigation Group (SIG) of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) carried out another inspection of the crime scene and recovered a bullet casing from a drain that matched the pistol used in the attack that had been recovered on the day of occurrence. Khalid Qureshi, the then SIG director, reportedly claimed that the team had also recovered a few pellets from the scene and a part of a skull bone from the roof of a nearby building. A former FIA director general confirmed the recovery of the .30 bullet casing and pellets but not the recovery of a skull bone. Strangely, the SIG did not issue a formal crime scene report.

The police officers’ apprehensions of violence by an enraged mob were also misplaced considering a large number of policemen were available to ensure the maintenance of law and order.

DSP Sultan Mehmood and Inspector Adul Sattar and the Waris Khan SHO had been deployed along with their force comprising more than 50 personnel to cordon the crime scene. Later inquiries confirmed that no violence took place in the vicinity and force was not used against any crowd or group of protestors at the spot. There were some small protests in front of the hospital and at Murree Road but none at or around the crime scene.

Usually, an SOS call is given over wireless for additional force to tackle such situations. There is no record of wireless communication testifying to the claim that a crowd was seen around the crime scene. Had it been so, the Operations SSP and the Investigation SP as well as other senior police officers would have played their roles. Why did the CPO and the SP communicate over the phone, instead of using the wireless system?

On August 31, 2017, an anti-terrorism court declared Gen Musharraf, the former president, a fugitive in the Benazir Bhutto case. Citing a lack of substantial evidence, it acquitted five suspected Pakistani Taliban of conspiracy to murder. Two senior police officers were, however, sentenced to 17 years in prison: one for mishandling security at the rally and the other for mishandling the crime scene. Both were subsequently exonerated and released.

Senior and seasoned police officers, retired and serving, have raised eyebrows over the handling of the case. The observations of the UN Commission Report were not followed up in terms of ascertaining whether the CPO had ordered the hurried washing of the site by himself or under instructions.

The writer is a former Joint Director General, Intelligence Bureau. He is founder and president of Peace & Conflict Research Centre, Lahore. He teaches public policy and national security at School of Governance & Society, University of Management & Technology, Lahore

Unsolved and unhealed