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LAHORE, Dec 27 2007 (IPS) - Benazir Bhutto has paid the heaviest price possible for her insistence on engaging in participatory, democratic politics in Pakistan.
Bhutto, twice prime minister and leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was killed Thursday evening in what was apparently a suicide attack following gunshots that injured her as she was leaving an election rally in the garrison town of Rawalpindi.
Just 54 years old, and a mother of three children, she died in hospital in Rawalpindi, close to the Pakistani capital Islamabad, at about 6:15 pm local time – barely an hour after an unidentified man fired shots at her as she left the rally venue, a fenced off park, before blowing himself up. Some 20 others were killed and dozens more injured.
“She feared something like this would happen, but she was so brave,” said PPP spokesperson Farhatullah Babar, who was with Bhutto at the rally. Speaking to IPS from Rawalpindi, shortly before the slain leader’s body was transferred to her hometown Larkana on a military C-130 plane, Babar added: “She waved at the people, and then there was firing and the blast.”
“I don’t think people realise this, but she was one of the last hopes we had in Pakistan for a peaceful transition to democracy,” said Karachi-based economist Haris Gazdar, who supported Bhutto’s much-criticised “deal” with the military government that allowed her to return to the country and participate in politics.
Under the National Reconciliation Ordinance promulgated on Oct. 5, Pervez Musharraf, president and chief of army staff, gave Bhutto immunity against corruption charges brought against her after she was ousted from power in 1996 (none of these charges were proved in court). In return, her party, which is Pakistan’s biggest, supported his presidential bid.
Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB), a former prime minister, and two brothers had been killed. In 1979, ZAB, who was overthrown by the military regime of Gen. Ziaul Haq, was hanged. “I was nine when ZAB was killed by a general. Now my son is nine and another general has killed his daughter. I grew up with Benazir. It’s a personal loss. I want to cry forever,” text-messaged a lawyer in Lahore.
Bhutto’s death ignited violence all over the country, particularly in Sindh, her home province. “They’ve shut down all the shops, and there is firing all around,” said Abdul Jabbar, who works as a driver in Karachi, the Sindh capital and Pakistan’s business capital. “People are just overcome with grief.”
By 9 pm, violence had claimed at least five lives in Karachi. Protesters in Sindh evacuated two trains and set them on fire. Angry mobs attacked police stations and other symbols of state authority. Commuters were reported to be stranded in towns and cities all over the province.
Bhutto had chosen to return to Pakistan on Oct. 18, after nearly nine years in exile in London and Dubai, defying warnings by Musharraf to delay her arrival due to the danger of suicide attacks.
“This is why I am here,” she said at the time, radiant atop her armoured truck soon after her arrival from Dubai. Waving to a sea of people who surrounded her truck in Karachi, she told this correspondent: “These people are the reason I am here.”
But hours later, her slow-moving convoy bogged down by thousands of exuberant supporters on foot, her truck was struck by two bombs struck soon after midnight. At first, the blasts were thought to be a suicide attack. At least 130 people were killed and 500 injured.
Addressing a press conference the following day, a defiant Bhutto had pointed to the involvement of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies in the attacks by mentioning three anonymous men whom she said she had named in a letter to Musharraf on Oct. 16. “I said that if something happens to me, I will hold them responsible rather than militant groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban.”
The PPP also demanded the removal of Intelligence Bureau chief, Ijaz Shah, hinting at its links with militancy. Bhutto’s later claim that the Oct. 18 blasts were remote-controlled further implied the involvement of forces other than the “religious militants” who are traditionally held responsible for such acts.
Despite the life threats, Bhutto hit the campaign trail after the polls were announced by the Election Commission on Nov. 20. With barely two weeks to go before voting on Jan. 8, Bhutto was criss-crossing the country, holding rallies.
Also on the campaign trail was Nawaz Sharif, another twice-elected former prime minister who like Bhutto has recently returned from several years in exile. In Sharif’s words, over the last two years, Bhutto and he as leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), had sunk their political differences to build a “rapport”.
In London in May 2006, the two exiled leaders signed a Charter of Democracy aimed at pushing the military out of Pakistani politics.
Talking to the media at the hospital in Rawalpindi where he had arrived on hearing of Bhutto’s death, Sharif described the tragedy as a “lapse in security” and said that the government should have taken greater measures to protect her.
Barely three hours before the blast that killed Bhutto, on Dec. 27, four PML-N supporters were killed by gun fire at a poll rally for Sharif outside Islamabad.
Bhutto’s assassination “sends a very frightening signal to those who aim to pursue liberal politics in Pakistan,” commented Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan-based South Asia Researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“This will leave a huge vacuum at the heard of Pakistani politics. It is the most significant political event to happen in Pakistan since the death of Gen. Zia,” he added. Gen. Zia’s death in 1988 had paved the way for fresh elections that brought Bhutto to power as the world’s first Muslim woman prime minister.
Condoling with Bhutto’s family and other affected people in a brief, televised address, President Musharraf announced a three-day mourning period during which the Pakistani flag will be flown at half-mast.
“It is important now for Asif Ali Zardari (Bhutto’s husband) to call for peace, and to give Benazir Bhutto a decent burial that she deserves,” said Nusrat Javeed, the banned head of current affairs for Aaj Television who appeared in a special transmission along with another banned host, Talat Hussain. “We need to sit and think, and transform the grief and the anger into strength.”
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