By Tariq Butt
ISLAMABAD: The report of the UN fact-finding commission says the then Rawalpindi City Police Officer (CPO), Saud Aziz, had ordered to hose down the scene of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination at the Liaquat Bagh on the order of the chief of the Military Intelligence of the time, Major General Nadeem Ijaz, who was not only a relative of Pervez Musharraf but also a known crony of the former dictator.
The report lays a lot of blame on Saud Aziz on different counts, especially washing of the crime scene and lack of autopsy. He was posted as the CPO Multan immediately after the present government came to power.
The commission attached a great significance to the washing of the crime scene to eliminate the evidence that could have proved tremendously useful in investigations into the assassination.
At one place, the report said, the then Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj met Benazir Bhutto in the early morning hours of December 27 at the Zardari House Islamabad. It said that directly knowledgeable sources told the commission that they spoke both about the elections as well as threats to her life; versions differ as to how much detail was conveyed about the threats. The commission is satisfied that at the least the ISI chief told Benazir Bhutto that the agency was concerned about a possible terrorist attack against her and urged her to limit her public exposure and to keep a low profile at the campaign event at the Liaquat Bagh later that day.
According to the findings, another source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Saud Aziz was ordered to hose down the scene by the then MI chief.
The report said that an ISI officer, Rawalpindi Detachment Commander Colonel Jehangir Akhtar, was present at the RGH through much of the evening. At one point, ISI deputy chief Major General Nusrat Naeem, contacted senior physician Prof Mussadiq through Colonel Jehangir’s cell phone. When asked about this by the commission, Nusrat Naeem initially denied making any calls to the hospital, but then acknowledged that he had indeed called when pressed further. He asserted that he had made the call, before reporting to his superiors, to hear, directly from Prof Mussadiq that Benazir Bhutto had died.
The commission said sources informed it that Saud Aziz did not act independently in deciding to hose down the crime scene. One source, on condition of anonymity, said the CPO had confided to him that he had received a call from the Army Headquarters instructing him to order the hosing down of the crime scene.
Others, including three police officials, told the commission that Saud Aziz did not act independently and that “everyone knows” who ordered the hosing down. However, they were not willing to state on the record what it is that “everyone knows”. This is one of the many occasions during the commission’s inquiry when individuals, including government officials, expressed fear or hesitation to speak openly, the report said.
It said that on three different occasions, senior Physician Professor Mussadiq of the RGH, where Benazir Bhutto was brought from the Liaquat Bagh, asked Saud Aziz for permission to conduct her autopsy, and the CPO refused each request. On the second request, Saud Aziz is reported to have sarcastically asked the professor whether an FIR had been filed, a matter that the CPO should know, not the professor.
The report said that the then District Coordination Officer of Rawalpindi Irfan Elahi (now a senior Punjab government official), who was also present outside the operating room of the RGH, supported the CPO’s position. The authorities, however, deny that the CPO deliberately refused to allow an autopsy. They insist that they wanted to get permission from Benazir Bhutto’s family. However, the commission said the police’s legal duty to request an autopsy does not require permission from a family member.
It said that because Prof Mussadiq could not obtain police consent to carry out an autopsy, he called in X-ray technician Ghafoor Jadd, who took two X-rays of her skull with a portable X-ray machine. He did this without notifying or seeking Saud Aziz’s consent. Though not present at the time, a radiologist examined the X-rays the next day. Benazir Bhutto’s death certificate was completed and signed by the senior registrar, Dr Aurangzeb, who recorded the cause of death as “To be determined on autopsy”.
The report said that soon after the blast outside the Liaquat Bagh the CPO left the crime scene for the RGH; SSP Yaseen Farooq followed shortly thereafter. The most senior Rawalpindi police official remaining at the crime scene was SP Khurram Shahzad, who continued to take instructions from Saud Aziz by telephone. The management of the crime scene and the collection of evidence by the Rawalpindi police during this time have generated considerable controversy.
The commission said that senior Pakistani police officials explained to it that in law and practice, the ranking police official at the scene of the crime takes decisions relating to crime scene management. SP Khurram asserted that he made the decision to hose down the scene. Before issuing the order to the rescue and fire services, Khurram called his superior, Saud Aziz, to seek permission, which was granted. Sources, including police officials familiar with the case, questioned the veracity of SP Khurram’s claim that the decision was his initiative.
The report said Saud Aziz’s role in this decision is controversial. Many senior Pakistani police officials have emphasised that hosing down a crime scene is fundamentally inconsistent with Pakistani police practice. While they acknowledge that there is no uniformity of practice in crime scene management in Pakistan, the washing of such a place is considered extraordinary. Indeed, with the exception of some Rawalpindi police officials, nearly all senior Pakistani police officials have criticised the manner in which this crime scene was managed. One senior police official argued that hosing down the crime scene amounted to “criminal negligence”.
According to the commission, several senior police officials who know the CPO were troubled that an officer with his 33 years of experience would allow a major crime scene to be washed away, thereby damaging his reputation.
The report said that some senior Pakistani police officials identified further factors suggesting that the CPO was not acting independently. They point out that, while the deliberate hosing down of a scene is unheard of in police practice, it has occurred on a few occasions, in each case when the military has been the target of such attacks and the crime scene was managed by the military directly.
Even Saud Aziz, the commission said, when asserting to it that there were precedents for hosing down a crime scene, acknowledged that all the incidents which he posited as precedents actually involved a military target. The police officials who point out this pattern saw it as further indication that the military was involved in having the crime scene hosed down.
The report said since the extraordinary nature of the hosing down of the crime scene generated such controversy that Punjab government officials recognised that some response was necessary. A three-member inquiry committee was set up by the chief minister to look into the washing down of the crime scene. The commission requested meetings with these individuals, which the facilitation committee was not able to arrange. No credible reason was provided. However, the committee accepted the Rawalpindi police explanation that the decision to wash the crime scene was formed by the investigating police officer at the scene, SP Khurram, with permission from CPO Saud Aziz, on grounds of public order. The committee had further found that the decision was not made with any mala fide intention and that washing the crime scene did not negatively impact on the conclusion as to the cause of death.
The commission said Benazir Bhutto’s Land Cruiser was initially taken to the City Police Station some time after midnight early on December 28 and then taken to the Police Lines. In the early hours of December 28, Saud Aziz went to see the Police Lines, together with others, including ISI officers, who were the first to conduct a forensic examination of the vehicle. An investigating police officer on the orders of the CPO removed Benazir Bhutto’s shoes and took them to the City Police Station. Sometime thereafter, the shoes were ordered back into the car.
The report said the commission is not convinced that the decision to wash the scene was made by Saud Aziz alone. The attack was too significant and its target too important to Pakistani society to make such a decision solely on his level.
“Sources told the commission that CPO Saud Aziz was constantly talking on his mobile phone while at the hospital. In the commission’s view, he has not adequately explained who called him during that time. Other sources have provided credible information about the intervention of intelligence agencies in the case. Whoever was responsible for this decision, and for whatever reason, acted in a manner that is contrary to the most basic police standards and hampered the proper investigation of the assassination,” the report said.
The report said the lack of a clear cause of death established by an autopsy severely affected the credibility of the government among the general public and has given rise to wide speculation as to the cause of Benazir Bhutto’s death. CPO Saud Aziz again appears in a setting in which he seems to have been able to impede the effective investigation of the crime. Again, it is unlikely that a police officer of his level could make such significant and ultimately destructive decisions on his own and wield such power. He maintains that he did not deny any requests for an autopsy.
Furthermore, it said, the CPO impeded some Joint Investigation Team investigators from conducting on-site probe until two full days after the assassination. The failure of Punjab authorities to otherwise review effectively the gross failures of the senior Rawalpindi police officials and deal with them appropriately constitutes a broader whitewash by Punjab officials.
The commission said the deliberate prevention by the CPO of a post mortem examination of Benazir Bhutto hindered a definitive determination of the cause of her death. It was patently unrealistic for the CPO to expect that Asif Zardari would allow an autopsy on his arrival in Pakistan at the Chaklala Airbase nearly seven hours after his wife’s death and after her remains had been placed in a coffin and brought to the airport. The autopsy should have been carried out at the RGH long before Zardari arrived.