Making sense of the Musharraf indictment

Published: August 23, 2013

Is now the right moment to expend precious time and resources on legal proceedings for a fallen figure like Musharraf?

On Monday, Nawaz Sharif addressed the nation. He spoke of staggering challenges: a paralysed economy, a crippling energy crisis, the existential threat of terrorism.  The implication: there’s much to be done, with not a moment to lose.

The very next day, Pervez Musharraf was charged in connection with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Is this unprecedented indictment of a former army chief a resounding victory for democracy in Pakistan? Absolutely.

But is it also an ill-timed move that smacks of revenge politics? Certainly. What else to make of the fact that the leader of a cash-starved, energy-deprived, militancy-choked, flood-ravaged nation has chosen this moment to pursue the man who overthrew him from power nearly 15 years ago?

Now to the heart of the matter: is there enough evidence for a conviction?

Let’s start with what we know—which is not much.

For years, Pakistan has contended that the Pakistani Taliban carried out the attack that killed Bhutto. This may well be true. Baitullah Mehsud allegedly threatened to welcome Bhutto back to Pakistan with droves of suicide bombers. Suspects in Bhutto’s killing confessed that Mehsud provided them with money for the operation. And then there’s the purported phone conversation between Mehsud and an unidentified mullah, released by the Pakistani government just after the assassination.

“It was a spectacular job,” Mehsud gushed to the mullah.

“These were very brave boys who killed her.”

Yet if non-state militants pulled the trigger, was someone else pulling the strings behind the opaque curtain of the state?

It’s quite possible. But there’s little reason to think it was Musharraf himself.

Certainly the former strongman is no angel. One could easily argue he didn’t provide sufficient security to Bhutto, someone he regarded with great disdain. Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, claims that Musharraf warned Bhutto that “I’ll only protect you if you are nice to me.” Bhutto herself famously sent an email to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in which she said that, were she to be killed, she wanted Musharraf held responsible.

This is unsettling stuff. But it doesn’t prove culpability.

Now consider the 2010 UN investigation of the Bhutto assassination, which is once again in the news with the recent publication of a Foreign Affairs article by lead investigator Heraldo Munoz. The attack was executed by the TTP, Munoz writes, and “possibly backed or at least encouraged by elements of the establishment.” One of his most striking conclusions: Pakistan “deliberately botched” its official investigation. Among other transgressions, the Army allegedly ordered a Rawalpindi police official to hose down the murder site.

An essay by Owen Bennett-Jones, published late last year in London Review of Books, raises more troubling questions about possible state complicity. After an unsuccessful attempt on Bhutto’s life in October 2007, an official report on that attack contained (for unexplained reasons) several newspaper articles quoting Bhutto. She said that if the US located Osama Bin Laden on Pakistani soil, she would “consider cooperating with Washington” to have him detained. She also said she “would be willing to hand over” AQ Khan to the IAEA for questioning.

Such declarations were likely not well-received by the security establishment. According to Bennett-Jones, they represent “possible motives for an attack” on Bhutto.

These considerations suggest that Musharraf may never see the inside of a prison, or even be convicted. The prospect of a Musharraf investigation and trial that brings out such incriminating material may well prompt an uneasy security establishment to order the legal process halted entirely. A grand bargain could conceivably be struck, with Musharraf spirited away to Saudi Arabia or Dubai. This would only happen, of course, if Musharraf (who has repeatedly vowed to fight all charges) is willing to go along with such a plan.

To be sure, this is all pure speculation. And let’s face it: the case has spawned conspiracy theories galore. Why, some ask, was Bhutto’s main bodyguard, standing just several feet from her as she delivered the speech that directly preceded her assassination, moving his fingers across his neck, nodding, and gesturing in Bhutto’s direction? Why, demand others, did Rehman Malik, a close Bhutto confidant, immediately leave the murder scene?

One of the more creative theories—proven false when Bin Laden was discovered alive in 2011—is that Bhutto was killed because she had said, in an interview with Al Jazeera just weeks before her assassination, that the militant Omar Sheikh had “murdered Osama Bin Laden” (she clearly misspoke.)

There are very few clear facts in this story. Yet here’s one: Pakistan is suffering through one of the most trying times in its history. So is now the right moment to expend precious time and resources on legal proceedings for a fallen figure like Musharraf?

Sharif may wish to answer this question in his next address to the nation.


Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He tweets @MichaelKugelman (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Karim

    The only solution of Pakistan’s challenges is an inclusive government with an approach of reconciliation towards all as every institution has made blunders in the past.Recommend

  • Rumormonger

    One wonders who benefited the most from this murder? Recommend

  • Uza Syed

    Kicking Sharif out of PM house might be a crime but you have a whole bunch of prominent Pakistanis of substance from the Security Establishment to Higher Judiciary to Politicians of every colour & party who supported President Musharraf in this deed. Many among the media and public at large celebrated this act and hailed President Musharraf as saviour and thanked him for ridding the country of a regime though voted in but hated equally for its supposed or real corrupt practices. So if PM Sharif has a score to settle than he must do his best to prove to the people that we were all wrong instead of going after one man.

    For Bhutto’s murder, suffice it to say that Musharraf is much to fine an individual to be a part of any schemes to murder an individual, he proved this by sparing Nawaz Sharif life which could easily be jeopardized when he was not popular at all and could easily be dispensed.Recommend

  • Visionist

    It’s a revenge battle and it will not stop here.Recommend

  • Pappu

    @Rumormonger: Establishment, Zardari and Rehman MalikRecommend

  • Parvez

    A balanced piece of writing but a comment made by a very senior journalist after the Abbottabad Report was leaked fits aptly here as well : When all are guilty, then no one is guilty.

  • Shaukat Naeem Ghumman

    Former Pakistani tyrant ruler Pervez Musharraf who has been under house arrest for the past four months was legally charged on three counts for the murder of earlier Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The charges were killing and treason to commit murder and the easing of murder.

    It is time for him to face up to one of the biggest challenges of his life. Whether he is guilty or not, it is important that this trial — which has the potential to fasten onlookers outside Pakistan and in the state as well — is organized in a democratic and unbiased manner. The former general must get the opportunity to put up sufficient defense, while apprising himself with the versions of the law for his unproven lapses in the past, but the country’s able judges certainly must be neutral and objective. Nevertheless, Musharraf must accept that it is the democratic substructure that has now thwarted his determinations as a politician who wanted to cast aside the bullet and win by the opinion poll.

    Shaukat Naeem Ghumman

    Saudi ArabiaRecommend

  • Faraz Kakar

    Your love for a hated dictator is not a good enough justification to let him go away with the crimes he committed while ruling Pakistan. Secondly, if you think that quoting conspiracy theories increase the weight of your argument, you are mistaken.Recommend

  • http://karachi sohail khan

    A consusing article. It does not make sense to involve Pervez Musharraf in this case as a prime accused. Prime accused is one who prompted Benazir to go to Pakistan under very dangerious situation, prompted her to come out of bullet-proof car. Then dramatic murders of Shahinshah Khalid needs attention. Where is her cell phone and what was the last call with her while she was sitting iside the car safely.Recommend

  • http://karachi sohail khan

    @ Shaukat Naeem Ghumman:
    “Former Pakistani tyrant ruler Pervez Musharraf “… if you want to know real tyrant, look at Syeria and Egypt, Saddam and Qaddafi who massacred thousands of opponents. Pervez Musharraf did not resort to killing his opponents by guns and ruthless force of army, he was rather a civilized so-called dictator.Recommend

  • Faraz Kakar

    @sohail khan:

    Have you heard of a place called Balochistan?Recommend

  • Ahmed

    Proving Musharraf is going to be impossible without an all out sham trial for the following reasons;

    Murder of BB: The prosecution will need to prove that Musharraf ordered the assassination either through written documentation or through a credible eye witness account where Musharraf ordered someone else to do it.
    Poor Security to BB: Again the prosecution will have to prove that Musharraf ordered security to be relaxed around BB though credible documentation or eye witness account. Otherwise its just a tragic case of poor security in Pakistan which is a much more likely scenario given our state apparatus GHQ attack, Kamra attack and Mehran base attack.
    The security immediately around BB was being handled by the PPP itself, the attacker was able to bypass all of them to get to BB, through Malik so why the focus on the state’s failure? what about PPPs own failure, if they were not competent they should have not demanded the same. Also the security around BB was phenomenal there was no shortage of police and security personnel at any of the venues she visited.
    Evidence destruction: Here too proof will be needed that Musharraf ordered the same.

    As for warning BB about the threat to her life, what else was he supposed to do? lie? there was a real threat to her and Musharraf communicated it to her, how that translates into a personal threat no one has been able to explain.Recommend

  • Muhammad Ishfaq

    To put the record straight… it wasn’t the current P.M. who ordered arrest of Gen. Musharaf. It wasn’t he who had registered an F.I.R. against him in B.B’s case. And it isn’t Nawaz Sharif who indicted him in the case. So I see no revenge there. Basically, M.N.S. will only be too glad if Musharaf is hanged in this case but without sound evidence its wrong to conclude that he is behind this all.
    As the writer himself has said….Certainly the former strongman is no angel. One could easily argue he didn’t provide sufficient security to Bhutto, someone he regarded with great disdain.
    And that Haqqani said….Musharraf warned Bhutto that “I’ll only protect you if you are nice to me.” *
    And last but not the least….
    Bhutto herself famously sent an email to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in which she said that, were she to be killed, she wanted Musharraf held responsible.*
    But in our esteemed writer’s opinion… This is unsettling stuff. But it doesn’t prove culpability.

    Well, this unsettling stuff at least shows that Musharaf was indeed involved to some extent. And this opinion is further endorsed by Mr. Haraldo Munoz also.
    So my point is let the court decide what is culpable and what’s not.
    Musharaf may be a fallen figure but Benazir Bhutto was the brightest star on Pakistan’s political horizon.Her blood must not go waste.Recommend

  • AnilKhan

    The ATC had named Musharraf in the case in February 2011, and in August the same year he was declared a proclaimed offender and his property was attached because of his absence. It is therefore PPP government which initiated case and all whereas the writer is blaming Nawaz Shareef who has just been in power for few months.Recommend

  • Atif

    *Seriously, we need to stop wasting time on a murder that happened almost 6 years ago, people are dying everyday in Pakistan even today as we speak. Break the cycle from happening in the future instead of getting stuck on a six year old incident *Recommend

  • Pemra Avenger

    If Musharraf is a “Prime suspect” in Benazir murder case, then Zardari/GilaniRehman Malick should be prime suspect in all the murders and target killings in Karachi during PPP govt when he was interior minister. They did not provide adequate security to ppl when they knew that their life was under constant threat..!!Recommend

  • Danish Amjad Alvi

    Very well-written and accurate article. Recommend

  • Em Moosa

    “Husain Haqqani, claims that Musharraf warned Bhutto that “I’ll only protect you if you are nice to me.”
    Do you believe a man like Haqqani ?Recommend