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UN Bhutto Inquiry: Assassination was Preventable

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry charged with investigating the December 2007 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto says her murder could have been prevented if adequate security measures had been taken. The 65-page report released Thursday faults the Pakistani government and local authories, as well as the police, for not taking the necessary measures to protect her. The commission also criticized the subsequent police investigation.

The highly-anticipated report says the ultimate responsibility for Ms. Bhutto's security on the day she was killed rested with the federal government, the local government of Punjab, and the police in Rawalpindi, where she died in a gun and suicide attack.

The head of the panel, Chilean U.N. Ambassador Heraldo Munoz told reporters in a news conference shortly after the report's release, that none of these entities took the necessary measures to protect her from the extraordinary security risks she faced. "A range of government officials failed profoundly in their efforts; first, to protect Ms. Bhutto; and second, to investigate with vigor all those responsible for her murder -- not only in the execution of the attack, but also in its conception, planning and financing," he said.

He said Ms. Bhutto had a clear understanding of the risks she faced in returning to Pakistan, as did the government of then-President Pervez Musharraf, but it was not adequate for the government to simply inform her of the dangers, it should have taken steps to protect her.

Munoz and the other two commission members -- Indonesian former attorney general Marzuki Darusman and Irish former police official Peter Fitzgerald - and their staff, interviewed more than 250 people inside Pakistan and elsewhere, and examined and analyzed hundreds of documents, videos, photographs and other documentary information during their nine and half month fact-finding investigation.

Among their other conclusions was that actions and omissions by the Rawalpindi police in the immediate aftermath of the assassination - including hosing down the crime scene and failing to collect and preserve evidence - caused irreparable damage to the investigation. "The collection of 23 pieces of evidence was manifestly inadequate in a case that should have resulted in thousands of pieces of evidence," he said.

The panel said a government news conference the day after the assassination was ordered by President Musharraf. During that event, a government official said Ms. Bhutto's death was caused when she hit her head on the lever of her vehicle's escape hatch. The government also blamed Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud and Al-Qaida for the suicide bomber that attacked her convoy.

Ambassador Munoz said those assertions were made well before any proper investigation had been initiated. "This action pre-empted, prejudiced and hindered the subsequent investigation," he said.

Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, also came in for criticism in the report. The commission found that the agency conducted parallel investigations, gathering evidence and detaining suspects, which it selectively shared with police. It also failed to inform police of intelligence it had about terrorist cells targeting Ms. Bhutto.

The report concluded that failures of the police and other officials to react effectively to Ms. Bhutto's assassination were in most cases, deliberate. In other cases, the panel said failures were driven by officials' fears that intelligence agencies were involved.

The panel also criticized authorities for deliberately preventing an autopsy of Ms. Bhutto, saying it impeded a definitive determination on the cause of death.

The commission's report was supposed to be released on March 30, but after a last minute request from Pakistan's government to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a two week delay was agreed.

Ambassador Munoz said no changes were made to the report during that period.

The report was submitted to Mr. Ban Thursday afternoon. He then transmitted it to the Pakistani government, via their U.N. ambassador Abdullah Haroon. It was also to be given to the 15-member U.N. Security Council for 'information purposes.'

Ambassador Haroon abruptly canceled a news conference at U.N. headquarters moments before it was to happen. His spokesman said the government would respond to the report from Islamabad.

The commission's task was only to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding Ms. Bhutto's death. It was not a criminal investigation. That now lies with the Pakistani authorities.