June 06, 2020
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Benazir’s Ascent To Catastrophe

A family tragedy has turned into a political nightmare for Benazir Bhutto. Will her government survive?

Benazir’s Ascent To Catastrophe

FOR Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, family feud and political rivalry overlapped in a cruel twist on September 20 when her estranged brother Murtaza was killed in a shootout with the police near his 70 Clifton residence in Karachi. Adding to her woes is the speculation that her husband Asif Zardari scripted this latest chapter in the violent Bhutto saga. And, as has happened all too often in Pakistan, personal tragedy for the Bhuttos is turning into political nightmare for Pakistan as uncertainty looms large over the future of its prime minister. As the Jang newspaper observed: "Benazir is facing a most trying moment of her life."

When Murtaza’s jinxed political career met its bloody end this September, it could not have come at a worse juncture for Benazir. Her government is fighting a grim battle on several fronts—an acrimony-filled rift with the judiciary and the president, an everrising toll in ethnic and sectarian clashes, particularly in Karachi, an economy that’s all but crippled and an Opposition that’s moving in for the kill.

For his part, Zardari is no stranger to controversy. But with the Murtaza killing sparking off the theory that he held the smoking gun—a view endorsed, for a while, by Benazir’s mother Nusrat—the four-year-old PPP government has never seemed shakier.

The conflicting reports and mystery that still shroud the death of Murtaza—who led a rival faction of the ruling PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) called the Shaheed Bhutto Group (PPSB)—have spawned a host of theories in a country anyway given to speculation on conspiracies. The main one doing the rounds is that Zardari colluded with senior Karachi police officials to eliminate his brother-in-law, whom he saw as a threat to his wife.

But the sequence of events of September 20 are not yet clear. The police initially claimed that when they reached Murtaza’s house that evening to arrest him on charges of rioting, they were fired upon by security guards stationed at the house. Murtaza and six of his supporters were fatally injured when the police returned fire in self-defence. Another version has it that Murtaza’s men opened fire when they were stopped at a police checkpost, and that Murtaza was killed in the ensuing crossfire.

 Mazhar Memon, senior vice-president of the PPSB’s Hyderabad division, said the police opened fire on Murtaza without any provocation. "We were returning from a public meeting at Surjani town when the police and Rangers stopped us near 70 Clifton," he claimed. "(When Murtaza stepped out of his car to talk to the officials) the policemen suddenly opened fire, seriously injuring him. I also came out of the vehicle to help my injured leader who was on the ground and I received a bullet in my leg. Mir Murtaza raised his hand urging the police to hold the fire. But the policemen ignored him and continued firing."

The circumstances of the shootout are now under judicial inquiry, but Murtaza’s supporters are demanding a Supreme Court investigation. The police will also conduct two internal inquiries into the incident to determine if the use of force was excessive and unwarranted, and to investigate the circumstances leading to the clash and whether legal procedure was followed. Strangely, the medical board constituted to determine the cause of injury to the policemen has reached a unanimous decision that at least one of the police officers shot himself. But as political analyst Shireen Mazari notes, "Whatever the government version, nobody is going to believe it. A lot of people will blame Benazir and her husband."

And so, Pakistan continues to dwell on the conspiracy theory, which was immediately picked up by a couple of newspapers and international news agencies. Some even claimed that a day before the killing, Zardari met senior police officials in Karachi to give the final touches to the plot. Wajid Durrani, senior superintendent of police of District South, where the incident took place, was also said to be present. A detailed investigative report in a Karachi newspaper claimed that Durrani was transferred to South District just for this purpose. Quoting government sources, the report pointed out that there was a stream of information from the Intelligence Bureau suggesting that some of Murtaza’s ‘boys’ posed a serious physical threat to the country’s first family, and hence needed to be ‘removed’. It is alleged that Durrani not only did not stop his men from firing at Murtaza’s entourage, but also prevented Murtaza from being rushed to hospital.

Doctors at the ill-equipped Mideast Hospital, where a severely wounded Murtaza was finally taken, confirmed that Murtaza died of excess bleeding, and that he could have been saved if he was brought to the hospital earlier.

 And the killing provoked its share of emotional scenes. A distraught Benazir rushed to Karachi, where she wept and wailed upon seeing the body of her younger brother—a brother who had launched a campaign to overthrow her government after his return from exile in 1993. Young men tried to cling to the helicopter carrying Murtaza’s body from Karachi to Larkana for the funeral, but they fell to the ground as the helicopter took off. People beat their chests and slogans were raised against Zardari, Sindh chief minister Abdullah Shah and the police. "Zardari be hanged. Nasirullah Babar (the interior minister) be hanged. They are murderers," the activists shouted. "Our exiled prince has gone into permanent exile," said a weeping activist. "We fought with Murtaza against the military dictator. We are not scared of death," said another.

Later, after reviewing a preliminary investigation, Benazir too claimed that Murtaza’s killing was "planned and motivated". In an emotionally-choked voice, she said the "real truth" about the killing would not remain hidden. "Our paths were different but our blood was the same," she said. "Our destiny was one—Islam, Pakistan, democracy and equality."

But right now, Benazir has more pressing things on her mind. Chief among them is President Farooq Ahmed Leghari’s sudden reference in the Supreme Court on whether or not he could appoint judges to superior courts with the advice of the prime minister. A major issue in recent months, it seemed to near flashpoint when Leghari said on September 26 that he could dismiss the government if "the national interest so demanded". The opposition, which has been demanding these amendments for some time, is obviously thrilled, and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif met the president the same day to convey his support.

And if the equation within the all-powerful troika (the prime minister, the president and the army) is hazy, the Bhutto household makes for an even more confusing family soap. Benazir and Murtaza had been at loggerheads ever since his return from a 16-year exile in Kabul and Damascus. The rift came out in the open in 1993 when Murtaza opted to contest elections as an independent. Jailed on his return after the elections, Murtaza was finally released on bail in June 1994.The feud continued unabated, dividing the family as Nusrat sided with her son and apolitical sister Sanam made frantic efforts to reconcile the warring siblings. Murtaza formed his breakaway faction of the PPP the following year, adding the words ‘Shaheed Bhutto’ to his party name in memory of his father.

Immediately after Murtaza’s death, Nusrat Bhutto was quoted by supporters as saying, "If I do not get justice, I will register a case against Asif Ali Zardari and Benazir Bhutto for the murder of my son." However, she issued a signed statement soon afterwards claiming such false reports were meant to divert attention from the real culprits. Nusrat, who is suffering from cancer, has now "been taken ill and is being sedated", her staff said.

Meanwhile Sindh, particularly Karachi, continues to simmer with clashes being reported almost on a daily basis, belying Benazir’s claim of having restored law and order in the region. Keeping a close watch on the situation is a small team that works day and night in a little room in north London. Run by self-exiled leader of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) Altaf Hussain, the office issues bulletins detailing persecution of MQM workers. The lists are shorter this year after Hussain ordered all MQM workers underground in February. But 50 workers were listed killed in January and February this year. Fifty-seven more were listed as killed by the Pakistani police by late September.

However, this just may be the lull before the storm. "The only instruction to our workers for the moment is to save your life somehow, anyhow," says Tariq Meer, chief organiser of the MQM in Europe. "But make no mistake. This lull is not peace, these barbaric killings are not the answer." And if the Pakistani government thinks they are, "they’ve got something coming to them." As if Benazir Bhutto didn’t already have enough on her platter. 

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