The shock of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been compared to the impact of the killing of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963. As in the Kennedy assassination, the Bhutto murder has spawned numerous conspiracy theories.
In Pakistan, spinning and spreading conspiracy theories about politics and government in the country are something of a national pastime.
In the death of Benazir Bhutto, contradictory accounts of the attack, allegations of a gross security lapse, and the bungled handling of the crime scene have fueled the conspiracy industry. Many Pakistanis, and in particular Bhutto loyalists, believe President Pervez Musharraf and his government had some role in Bhutto's death.
Husain Haqqani, at Boston University and former aide to Bhutto, says that at the very least, the government failed to provide the former prime minister with adequate security as she campaigned ahead of parliamentary elections, especially in light of the earlier October 18 suicide attack on her convoy in Karachi that killed nearly 150 people.
"I think that the government looks at least guilty of a coverup, if not of actual complicity. And basically, it certainly did not succeed in providing sufficient protection to Miss Bhutto. I think that those are things that the government simply cannot get away with, whatever the protestations," says Haqqani.
But President Musharraf vehemently denies any responsibility for Bhutto's death. "I have been brought up in a very educated and civilized family, which believes in values, which believes in principles, which believes in character. My family, by any imagination, is not a family which believes in killing people, assassinating, intriguing," he says.
In an interview Sunday with the American television network CBS, Mr. Musharraf said that Bhutto was in part responsible for her own death because she stuck her head through the sunroof of her armored car, which exposed her to attack.
The government's operating theory is that Islamic militants killed Bhutto. The government directly pins the blame on Beitullah Masud, a jihadist leader based in Pakistan's tribal areas and closely linked to al-Qaida. The government even says it has the intercept of a phone conversation of Masud congratulating subordinates on the attack.
Analysts note that Islamic radicals got, as one analyst put it, "two for the price of one" in Bhutto's assassination. Not only did it remove a liberal, Westernized, secular-minded woman from the political scene, but it also greatly increased the political pressure on President Musharraf.
Christine Fair, a Pakistan analyst at the RAND Corporation, calls the conspiracy theories of President Musharraf's involvement "nonsense". But she adds that the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, has long had links to the Taliban. Fair notes, the ISI was in large part responsible for the creation of the Taliban, ironically during Bhutto's second term as prime minister, between 1993 and 1996. Thus, she says, if Islamic militants are to blame, some linkage between the ISI and the plotters at a lower level cannot be ruled out.
"Those jokers have historically been supported by the ISI, which means that somewhere in their food chain someone has an active handler in that organization. So even though I don't think that the government ordered this, I feel very strongly that these conspiracy theories are a bunch of hogwash, I think that at the end of the day when you start picking out individuals and you start tracing back their network there's going to be some I.S.I. guy in that network. So they've got every reason for a cover-up," says Fair.
President Musharraf has requested assistance from Britain's Scotland Yard to help investigate the assassination. But Scotland Yard will have little to work with. The crime scene was hosed down shortly after the blast, destroying forensic evidence. There was no autopsy of Bhutto, and published reports say hospital records about the killing were confiscated and doctors ordered to keep silent.
The attack was apparently carried out by a gunman backed by a suicide bomber. The government has claimed that Bhutto actually died from hitting her head on a sunroof lever, rather than from the assassins' weapons. But the government account was disputed by eyewitnesses and greeted with considerable skepticism by the public.
Husain Haqqani, whose wife is running for Parliament on a ticket of Bhutto's party, says the government is shooting itself in the foot with its explanation of the Bhutto killing. "When General Musharraf says it was simple incompetence that people cleaned up the forensic evidence, I think that what he doesn't realize is that implicitly he is saying that even in a matter of such grave national importance this government cannot get its story straight and it cannot think straight," says Haqqani. "That actually builds up the case for the change of the government because if the government is so incompetent, why should it stay in office?"
Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations says that no matter how dubious the allegations of government involvement in Bhutto's death, they nevertheless have deep political ramifications. "Quite honestly, that doesn't strike me as being a realistic assessment of what really happened. But unfortunately, given the political conditions of Pakistan right now, the ramifications are that the belief, the widespread belief, that someone within the government did it or looked the other way and allowed it to happen will be very important politically," says Markey.
The elections, which were to have been held Jan. 8, have been postponed until Feb. 18.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.