Who if not Baitullah? By Amir Mir

The United Nations Inquiry Commission report into Bhutto’s murder has put Musharraf regime in the dock

The three-member United Nations Inquiry Commission has almost absolved the slain Ameer of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Commander Baitullah Mehsud of the Bhutto murder charge. By doing so it has trashed the Musharraf regime’s findings wherein he had been declared as the mastermind of the December 27, 2007 suicide attack that killed Benazir Bhutto outside the Liaqat Bagh in Rawalpindi.

In her posthumous book, ‘Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West’, Bhutto had named jihadi kingpin Qari Saifullah Akhtar as a key suspect in the October 18, 2007 attempt to kill her in Karachi upon her homecoming, but she wanted General Pervez Musharraf to be named as her assassin in case of her murder. Instead, the Musharraf regime was quick to blame Baitullah, and that too barely 24 hours after the murder. Baitullah had first been accused of masterminding the Bhutto assassination by the then Interior Ministry Spokesman, Brigadier (retd) Javed Iqbal Cheema, and afterward by Musharraf.

In his January 2, 2008 televised address to the nation, five days after the murder, Pervez Musharraf asked the Scotland Yard to help the Pakistani investigators in identifying the culprits. Yet, in the mind of the general, it was obviously clear who is to be blamed. At his December 28, 2007 news conference, Brigadier (retd) Cheema had stated: “We just have an intelligence intercept that was recorded this morning in which Baitullah Mehsud congratulated his people for carrying out the cowardly act of Benazir Bhutto’s murder”. He was quick to distribute among the media persons the English and Urdu transcriptions of the taped conversation which he claimed had taken place between two persons Baitullah Mehsud and one Maulvi Sahib.

Yet, despite repeated demands by the newsmen covering the press conference, neither the original tape was provided nor was it proven that the recorded voice was that of Baitullah Mehsud. On December 29, 2007, a day after Cheema’s press conference, PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar refuted the Musharraf regime’s claim. He told newsmen that after the October 28, 2007 suicide attack in Karachi, Bhutto had received a message from Baitullah: “Identify your enemy, I am not your foe, I have nothing to do with you or against you or with the murder attempt on you on October 18”.

The PPP leadership trusted the message, Babar said, adding that Baitullah’s communication was conveyed through two different reliable emissaries. Mehsud had conveyed to Mohtarma that his activities were limited to South Waziristan and were of a defensive nature. “I neither have the resources to fight outside Waziristan nor I have any plans to target you”, Babar quoted Baitullah as having told Bhutto.

A day after the first assassination attempt, Bhutto had stated during a press conference in Karachi that people like Baitullah Mehsud were mere pawns and what worried her was the threat from within the Musharraf regime. On his part, Baitullah too was quick to issue denials. His spokesman Maulvi Omar said on December 29, a day after the Interior Ministry spokesman’s press conference: “Why on earth would we kill Benazir Bhutto? We had no enmity with her and more importantly, she had done no wrong to us… By blaming us for the murder of Benazir Bhutto, Musharraf is attempting to portray the tribal areas as centres of terrorists so as to earn dollars from his western masters. We are equally grieved by the tragic death of Benazir Bhutto and extend our sympathies to her family as well as the Pakistan People’s Party workers…”

Maulvi Omar said that Commander Baitullah Mehsud, after learning about the allegations against him and sensing gravity of those charges, had convened an emergency meeting of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s Shura at a secret location somewhere between South and North Waziristan. “Addressing the participants, he made it clear that harming a woman was against the teachings of Islam and Shariah as well as the centuries-old rich traditions of the Pakhtun tribal people. Commander Baitullah blamed the Pakistani intelligence agencies for the murder of Benazir Bhutto and said the modus operandi and precision of the Rawalpindi strike clearly indicated that the grisly murder, carried out by using a skilled sniper first, to be followed by a suicide bomber, was committed by some highly trained professional hands”.

But the Musharraf regime was adamant to prove that the Bhutto murder was masterminded by none other than Baitullah. Reacting to Baitullah’s statement, Interior Ministry spokesman reiterated on December 30, 2007 that Baitullah had threatened to kill Benazir upon her return in October 2007, and was also behind the first attempt on her life in Karachi the same month that killed over 170 and wounded hundreds others. Brig. (retd) Cheema had quoted Baitullah as having threatened on October 6, 2007 to launch suicide attacks against Bhutto, saying his bombers were waiting in the wings to welcome her when she would return. On December 31, Baitullah reacted strongly to Cheema’s accusations and rejected any type of involvement in the October 18, 2007 Karachi suicide attack, saying he had neither issued any such statement nor could he think of ordering an attack that would kill a large number of innocent civilians.

However, on March 1, 2008, Baitullah was declared a proclaimed offender and his arrest warrant was issued by an anti-terrorist court of Rawalpindi. The haste with which the Musharraf regime proceeded against Baitullah to establish him as Bhutto’s killer, and that too without any solid evidence, gave an impression as if he was being made a scapegoat in the hush-up of one of the most high-profile murder cases in the recent history of South Asia.

But 28 months after the assassination of Bhutto and 8 months after the death of Baitullah in an American drone attack in August 2009, the United Nations Inquiry Commission probing the murder of the PPP chairperson has declared that the Musharraf regime’s assertion that Baitullah was behind the murder of Bhutto was premature and hasty. Para No 173 of the UN report states: “The then government’s assertion that Baitullah Mehsud was behind the assassination of Ms Bhutto was premature at best. Such a hasty announcement of the perpetrator prejudiced the police investigations which had not yet begun. Other flaws in the JIT’s (Joint Investigation Team) approach to investigating Baitullah Mehsud’s alleged role in the assassination are also inconsistent with a genuine search for the truth”.

The UN report added: “The communication intercepted by the ISI is purported to be a telephone conversation between Emir Sahib (said to be Baitullah Mehsud) and Maulvi Sahib. In it, the two speakers congratulate each other on an event which Brigadier Cheema asserted was the assassination. The Commission is not in a position to evaluate the authenticity of the purported intercept. Any further investigation into Ms Bhutto’s assassination must include steps for such authentication. It is not clear how or when the intercept from the ISI was recorded. The Commission is not in a position to assess the credibility of this information from the ISI. Saleh Shah Qureshi, Senator from South Waziristan, told the Commission that Mehsud had categorically denied any involvement in the assassination attempt of 18-19 October and the subsequent assassination of Ms Bhutto on 27 December, questioning also the authenticity of the telephone intercept ascribed to Mehsud. The JIT took no steps to investigate the veracity of any such denial.”

However, the UN Commission has abundantly made it clear on whose orders Baitullah was implicated. Para 157 of the report states: “The decision to blame Baitullah Mehsud was taken on the morning of 28 December 2007 during a high-level meeting at a facility in General Headquarters known as the Camp Office and presided over by General Pervez Musharraf. That meeting, at which General Musharraf was briefed on the intercept and on medical evidence, was attended by the Directors General of the ISI, MI and the IB. Brigadier (retd) Cheema was summoned to a subsequent meeting at ISI Headquarters and directed by the Director General of the ISI to hold the press conference. In attendance at this second meeting, in addition to Brigadier Cheema, were Interior Secretary Kamal Shah, Director General of the ISI, Director General of the IB, Deputy Director General of the ISI and another ISI brigadier.”

The UN Commission, therefore, observed in para 159 that the press conference by Brig (retd) Cheema not only failed to provide credible answers to essential questions arising from the Bhutto murder, it triggered widespread suspicion that the government authorities would not be conducting a genuine search for the truth.



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