Saturday, April 17, 2010

Pakistan Govt under pressure to probe Bhutto death

ISLAMABAD: The government came under pressure to complete its investigation of the assassination of former PM Benazir Bhutto after a UN enquiry concluded the previous government failed to protect her.
A report by a United Nations commission of inquiry released in New York on Thursday said her killing by a 15-and-a-half-year-old suicide bomber could have been prevented if adequate security measures had been taken.
Bhutto was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack after an election rally in the city of Rawalpindi on Dec. 27, 2007, weeks after she returned to Pakistan after years in self-imposed exile. The UN report heavily criticized Pakistani authorities, saying they had “severely hampered” the investigation.
The three UN investigators, who conducted a nine-month inquiry headed by Chile’s UN Ambassador Heraldo Munoz, believe the failure to effectively examine Bhutto’s death was “deliberate,” the report said.
Pakistani authorities arrested five militants in 2008 on suspicions of involvement in Bhutto’s assassination. They were being tried in an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi but the current government, which came into power after Feb. 2008 elections, requested the court to stop the trial as it wanted to re-investigate the matter.Police officials said the Federal Investigation Agency was now carrying ot the probe.
“We are not oblivious of our responsibilities to carry out investigations,” presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar told Reuters.
Bhutto was mistrusted by parts of military and security establishment and speculation has lingered she was the victim of a plot by allies of General Pervez Musharraf, who did not want her to come to power. The report did not say who it believed was guilty of the crime, but suggested any credible investigation should also look at those who conceived, planned and financed the operation.
“The blame has been fixed on the previous administration, especially for those who were responsible for her security,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political and security analyst
“Now the challenge for the government is to carry out its own investigations. There will be pressure on the government and even within the Pakistan People’s Party to proceed against those … who are still in service.”
The UN report was also critical of Bhutto’s own Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for failing to provide adequate security.
Farahnaz Ispahani, media advisor to the co-chairman of the PPP, said: “We expect there will be a proper criminal investigation followed by prosecutions.”
Bhutto had returned to Pakistan to contest an election under a power-sharing deal with Musharraf that Washington had helped to broker.
A staunch opponent of militants, Bhutto survived a bomb attack on a rally hours after arriving home in the city of Karachi in October 2007. Some 149 people were killed.
The toughly worded UN report said Musharraf was aware of and tracking the many threats against Bhutto.But his government “did little more than pass on those threats to her and to provincial authorities and were not proactive in neutralising them or ensuring that the security provided was commensurate to the threats,” it said.

Afghans blame both US, Taliban for insecurity

Associated Press
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – With a U.S.-led offensive only weeks away to clear the Taliban from this key southern city, many residents blame foreign troops and the Afghan government as much as the Taliban for pushing Kandahar toward the brink of chaos — the very thing the military hopes to reverse.The goal of the operation by U.S., NATO and Afghan forces is to shore up a local administration that nominally controls the city and break the grip of warlords and influence peddlers, whose role is widely believed to have opened the door to the Taliban.
Kandahar is the largest city in the south and the spiritual headquarters of the Islamist movement when it ruled most of Afghanistan before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Weak and ineffectual government has allowed the fighters to slip back.
"I blame the Afghan government and NATO forces entirely for the insecurity because our government is weak and corrupt," said Hajji Abdullah, who sells air conditioners in downtown Kandahar. "Everyone knows that the Taliban are against the government. They are bringing their explosives from Pakistan. Why isn't NATO working to stop these people?"
The task of securing Kandahar will be formidable. Apart from military challenges, the mission requires redressing public grievances built up over nearly nine years of misrule and winning the trust of the half million inhabitants, who are deeply skeptical of Western promises."Ten percent of the people are with the Taliban, 10 percent are with the government and 80 percent of the people are angry at the Taliban, the government and the foreigners," said Mohammed Ishaq Khan, a leader of the powerful Achakzai tribe, which dominates an area that has been the scene of bitter battles between NATO and the insurgents.In advance of the NATO offensive, expected to kick into high gear this summer in residential districts on the edge of the city, the Taliban have stepped up their own campaign, planting more and more bombs and booby-traps around Kandahar and elsewhere in the south."The Afghan National Army and the police cannot provide security and this government cannot provide good governance," said Karim Khan, a tribal leader from nearby Panjwai district, where successive NATO and Afghan operations have failed to dislodge the Taliban. "Warning of the (upcoming) operation only gives the Taliban a lot of time to plant bombs that cause problems for everyone."A Taliban commander, interviewed by The Associated Press in the heart of the city, said fighters move about freely, slipping in and out of Kandahar and hiding in private homes."Eight years ago we were in the mountains," said the commander, who calls himself Mubeen. "But now we are in the cities, towns and villages because we have the support of the people. Without their support we couldn't do it."Taliban attackers struck twice Thursday — once with a car bomb that wounded eight in front of a hotel in the center of the city and again with a suicide assault against a compound housing Western companies. At least three people were killed and 34 wounded in the two attacks.With both sides preparing for a summer showdown, anxiety is running high among Kandahar's people.
"We just don't know what to think," said day laborer Abdul Ghani as he dug drainage ditches in the city. "We know there is no security today. We only want peace. When the Taliban were here, I could get a job. Now I can get a job, but the difference is today there is no security. We are not politicians, we are not soldiers. We just want peace."
Azizullah, a frail 60-year-old who like many Afghans uses only one name, is convinced "the foreigners cannot bring us peace."
"Most people are not for one side, not for the Taliban and not for the government. But one thing we have to say is that during the Taliban's time, security was stable. There were no kidnappings, no robberies, no killings. But now we are always afraid."
The people of Kandahar have already been paying a heavy price for the battle for power in the south — the main theater of the Afghan war.The international Red Cross reported this week that civilian deaths from roadside bombs in Kandahar and neighboring Helmand province soared nearly 40 percent in the first two months of this year over the same period in 2009.Kandahar's Mirwais Hospital treated 51 patients wounded in roadside bombings last month, a figure the Red Cross said was "far above the average number for the month" without giving specifics.At least 30 people were killed March 13 in a series of Taliban suicide bombings in what appeared to be a failed attempt to free inmates from a Kandahar prison. On Monday, U.S. troops fired on a civilian bus outside the city, killing four people and stoking anger over the international presence. The shooting is under investigation."The Americans are responsible for the insecurity and the Taliban are responsible too," said Janan, a mobile phone salesman. "The Americans are bombing innocent civilians and the Taliban are killing Afghan civilians with their suicide attacks."
Those attacks have reinforced a belief among many Kandahar residents that the coming offensive will accomplish little more than fuel more violence.Amanullah, interviewed in his small shop in the Kandahar market, said he was convinced that the offensive's only result "will be death."
"The operation will not be good for us," said Amanullah.
American officials think the root of Kandahar's security problem is an ineffectual local government, weakened by the influence of local power brokers who favor certain tribes, including President Hamid Karzai's Popalzai, at the expense of others that have allied with the Taliban.
"I can't find one employee in the municipality who has got the job on merit, because they have education or are qualified, not one," said Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi, who lived for two decades in the United States. "Instead it is because he is from this tribe or that tribe. This is our biggest problem."
Hamidi, interviewed at his home nestled behind high cement walls, said he once ordered the arrest of someone who owed the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees for a government contract. A powerful member of parliament arranged the defendant's release, Hamidi said without identifying the lawmaker.
The U.S. military believes the tribal power structures in Kandahar are out of balance, with marginalized tribes turning to the Taliban for protection and help against the dominant tribes. As a result, police are afraid to enforce the law for fear of running afoul either of the Taliban or the rich and powerful. That allows both the Taliban and criminal gangs to operate with near impunity.
Hamidi blames the situation on a decision by the Bush administration to forge alliances with anti-Taliban warlords in various parts of Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion. Empowering the warlords weakened President Hamid Karzai's government, which in turn was unable to address problems outside the capital — including the tribal imbalance in Kandahar."It was the international community that went to the warlords after the Taliban and brought them back," the mayor said. "And this is the result."

Arab Woman Trades Sand for Snow

A 27-year-old investment manager from the United Arab Emirates has officially set out to become the first Arab woman to set foot on top of the world. Elham Al-Qasimi's cross-country ski trek to the North Pole comes at a time when females across the Middle East are making advances in a range of fields. It also highlights the changing roles of women in the traditionally conservative region.

Elham Al-Qasimi was airlifted to an ice station that floats somewhere between 88 and 89 degrees latitude on Friday and from there began skiing northward towards the 90 degree mark.

Her expedition is expected to take 11 days to complete and cover up to 100 nautical miles.
The journey is unsupported and unassisted, which means she must only use human means of propulsion and can not receive re-supplies or air drops. She is, however, travelling with a guide.

Despite coming from one of the Arab world's most liberal nations, Qasimi has been criticized by some conservative compatriots in the United Arab Emirates who say her polar trek is not appropriate for a woman. However, she insists the critics have been far and few between.

"For every 200 positive messages I've received saying: this is amazing or you've inspired me to do something that I dreamt about but didn't think I could, there is probably one that will say: I don't understand why you are doing this; you are a woman," said Elham Al-Qasimi. "So I think it's a pretty good record."

Qasimi says her general support reflects a changing perception of women in much of the Arab world, but she says she does not believe the sentiment is enough to constitute a women's rights movement.

"One thing I've said in the past about my message to [Arab] women is that it's one woman at a time," she said. "It's not a movement. It's just each woman being herself in whatever area or sphere she feels she excels in. One person at a time, I think, is the best way to move forward because then it's not a thing that's staged, it's just literally history unfolding."

The United Arab Emirates has taken many steps towards greater gender equality recently.

According to government statistics, Emirati females currently make up 66 percent of the government sector workforce, including 30 percent of senior decision-making positions.

But it is not the same situation in most neighboring nations. According to a recent poll by Swiss-based World Economic Forum, which measured opportunity for women in education, health, business and politics, all 14 Arab countries examined ranked in the bottom 30.

A nation that has become notorious for gender inequality is Saudi Arabia, where prominent clerics have issued fatwas saying anyone who encourages the mingling of men and women should be punished by death.P. Wellman - VOA
Hissa Hilal recites a poem during the final of the Million's Poet competition in Abu Dhabi

Recently, a female Saudi poet spoke against the fatwas on a televised poetry contest in Abu Dhabi. She ended up becoming the first female finalists on the popular show, but she also received death threats along the way.

Despite the danger, Hissa Hilal refused to pull out of the competition saying her participation sent the right message to women throughout the Middle East.

"It says that Arab women can do this and she's strong enough to do it… And maybe this is a new stage of life especially for Arab women," said Hissa Hilal.

Suicide bombers kill 27 at Pakistan displaced camp

Twin suicide bombers struck a crowd of displaced people clamouring for aid handouts, killing at least 27 people on Saturday at a camp in northwest Pakistan, police said.

The bombers struck minutes apart in the Kacha Pukha camp on the outskirts of the garrison city of Kohat, a registration centre for people fleeing Taliban violence and Pakistani army operations close to the Afghan border.

The attacks underscored the grave threat still posed by extremists despite stepped up Pakistani offensives and a significant increase in US drone attacks targeting Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked commanders in the nearby tribal belt.

"At least 27 people have died. There are 45 wounded. The toll may go up," Kohat police chief Dilawar Khan Bangash told AFP by telephone from the scene.

"Both were suicide attacks. Body parts of the suicide bombers have been recovered. The blasts took place at the relief distribution point for internally displaced people," he said.

Bangash said the first bomber detonated his explosives while displaced people gathered to receive relief items. A few minutes later the second bomber blew himself up in the middle of the gathering crowd.

Other officials confirmed two blasts, but Khalid Omarzai, the local chief of administration, initially told Geo television station that the second had been a planted device.

Northwest Pakistan has suffered a major internal displacement of people as a result of Taliban violence and a series of military offensives concentrated on flushing out the armed Islamists from parts of the northwest and tribal belt.

The United Nations says 1.3 million people are currently displaced.

Pakistan's latest military offensive and ongoing extremist violence have displaced at least 210,000 people from the tribal districts of Orakzai and Kurram, most of whom have registered in Kohat and Hangu towns.

Northwest Pakistan suffers from chronic insecurity largely connected to the neighbouring semi-autonomous tribal belt, which Washington calls the most dangerous place on Earth and a global headquarters of Al-Qaeda.

A campaign of suicide and bomb attacks have killed more than 3,200 people in less than three years across the nuclear-armed country of 167 million, blamed on Al-Qaeda, Taliban and other extremist Islamist groups.

On Friday, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the main hospital in the southwestern city of Quetta, killing 10 people, in what police said was an apparent sectarian attack linked to the shooting of a Shiite banker.

Under US pressure, Pakistan has in the past year significantly increased operations against militants in its tribal belt, which became a stronghold for hundreds of extremists who fled Afghanistan after the 2001 US-led invasion.

Last year, a total of 3.1 million people were displaced from their homes in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province and the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border.

Nearly two million people have returned home, but uncertainty continues in the wake of ongoing clashes between troops and the Taliban.

Jean-Maurice Ripert, the UN special envoy in charge of humanitarian affairs for Pakistan, last week pressed donors for urgently needed funds for the displaced amid warnings that some aid projects may have to be cut.

Monday, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Pakistan, Martin Mogwanja, said in Islamabad that the world body had so far received only 106 million dollars from the donors, barely 20 percent of a total appeal for 537 million dollars.

Orakzai, the current focus of Pakistani military operations, is a former bastion of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Hakimullah Mehsud, whom US officials believe probably died in a US drone attack in January.

The Pakistani military says it has no evidence he is in the area.

Benazir Bhutto ... An avoidable calamity
If there is one unmistakable conclusion that can be drawn from reading the Benazir Bhutto commission report, it is this: Ms Bhutto was left at the mercy of her killers.
Who the masterminds of her death are is uncertain. The report simply notes: “Ms Bhutto faced serious threats in Pakistan from a number of sources; these included Al Qaeda, the Taliban and local jihadi groups, and potentially from elements in the Pakistani establishment.” Why any of those groups may have wanted to kill can be speculated about endlessly. But this much is clear: her tragic death was completely avoidable. To even the untrained eye, the security provided to Ms Bhutto was terribly, wretchedly inadequate. Pakistan knows how to protect its VVIPs when it wants to: ask Gen Musharraf or his top generals or his favourite politicians; on his watch, they were as safe as safe can be. But Ms Bhutto was given none of the protection that, among all the pretenders and jesters who received it, she alone deserved to have been given.The exact language of the report bears being repeated, for it points to the presence of, in its purest and most real manifestation, an evil intention: “Particularly inexcusable was the government’s failure to direct provincial authorities to provide Ms Bhutto the same stringent and specific security measures it ordered on 22 October 2007 for two other former prime ministers who belonged to the main political party supporting General Musharraf. This discriminatory treatment is profoundly troubling given the devastating attempt on her life only three days earlier and the specific threats against her which were being tracked by the ISI.”Ms Bhutto could and should have survived the Dec 27, 2007 attack; she didn’t because of the monumental, and very deliberate, sin of omission on the part of Gen Musharraf & Co. Where was the security she deserved and the Pakistani state had the proven capability to offer?The whys can be debated endlessly. Perhaps a clue may lie in new revelations about the ‘deal’ between Ms Bhutto and Gen Musharraf whereby the former prime minister was allowed to return to Pakistan. The UN report notes: “While their discussions included the issue of an eventual power-sharing arrangement, the final terms were never agreed.” Perhaps Gen Musharraf, fighting for survival in the bare-knuckled politics, thought Ms Bhutto’s safety could be a bargaining chip in their negotiations characterised by extreme mutual suspicion. With Gen Musharraf now in self-imposed exile, the country is unlikely to ever learn the truth. But the country will always know this: Ms Bhutto’s killers succeeded because the government deliberately failed to protect her.
They did not pull the trigger or detonate the bomb that killed Benazir Bhutto, but between-the-lines reading of the UN report into her murder makes it clear that they may well have left the door ajar for those that did. She was killed on the watch of President Musharraf whose government did little to protect a woman it perceived as a threat to its power and primacy. It is a testament to its enduring power that the present government is no more eager to get to the bottom of who killed her than its predecessor, and for all the bombast and bluster President Zardari has never been about to put the murderers of Benazir Bhutto in the dock or authorise any investigation that might expose the deeper truths behind the killing. In paragraph after paragraph the report refers to the lack of cooperation that the investigative team experienced at the hands of establishment figures, men who worked for the security services and the various police forces that were questioned. Time after time their oral evidence conflicted with that of video footage or still camera images. The half-truths and untruths that they told exposed each other's duplicity and the report reads as a catalogue of the dishonesty and ineptitude of public officers at just about every level. There is an inescapable impression of purposeful and directed obstruction, which will raise questions in the minds of a suspicious and doubting public already inured to being lied to by successive governments. Of particular note is the failure of the then government to accord Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, the same security as was extended to two other former prime ministers on Oct 22, 2007, men who were Musharraf's political allies.
Also of note is the role of Saud Aziz, chief of police in Rawalpindi, whose decisions denied evidence to investigators. He it was who had the assassination site hosed down less than two hours after the attack, he it was who hosted long lunches for investigators the better to divert them from their duties and he it was who was the primary impediment to any autopsy being conducted. Post-assassination inquiries are exposed as worthless – the much-mentioned Scotland Yard inquiry is spoken of in paragraph 195 as being 'abused' by officers of the Rawalpindi District Police, with 'abused' in this context meaning 'lied to'. Is this the incompetence that is a feature of our security apparatus or is there something more behind the actions that have led to a kind of paralysis in finding out more about the most significant political killing of our time? Television networks, including Geo, have produced some very revealing investigative programmes on the assassination and it is a pity more effort has not been made to explore the leads offered up by them.
We have learned little that we did not already know from the report of the UN commission on the murder of Benazir Bhutto and there appears to be nothing in it to warrant delaying its publication by a fortnight. And the tendency here will be to 'fill in the blanks'. The failure of the Musharraf government and now this government to properly investigate it does nothing to debunk the conspiracies, and the UN report may be the unwitting midwife to obfuscation rather than clarity. There are questions here not brought up by the UN – a body known after all for its sometimes crippling diplomacy and bureaucracy. Why, we must ask, has an administration led by Benazir Bhutto's husband done so little to find out who killed his wife? An inquiry at home should have taken place alongside the UN inquiry. It is something of a mystery why this did not happen. There are quite evidently many angles to the assassination that have not been explored. The UN probe points, albeit subtly, to some of these. There is clearly a great deal still hidden from the public eye. Benazir's killing affected an entire nation and that nation deserves to know more about it.

UN report has vindicated PPP

ISLAMABAD: President Asif Ali Zardari said on Friday the UN inquiry commission’s report had confirmed the apprehensions of the Pakistan People’s Party about the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. He ordered that the ongoing criminal investigation be expedited.

In an official statement, issued almost 20 hours after the release of the UN report, the president said the PPP had been claiming that the Musharraf government was responsible — first, for the criminal neglect in providing security to Ms Bhutto and, second, by hushing up available evidence to cover up the crime.

Except for blaming the previous regime, the president did not mention any thing on the report’s findings that also mentioned failure of the PPP in providing a foolproof security cover to Benazir and conducting a result-oriented investigation to unveil faces despite a lapse of over two years.

The government also did not specify how the criminal investigation would be conducted and under whose supervision it would be carried out. It also did not give a timeframe about completion of the investigation.

Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said the second joint investigation team was carrying out the criminal investigation and in the light of the UN report the pace would be expedited.

However, senior PPP leader Senator Safdar Abbasi stressed the need for setting up a special department, or an impartial body, to investigate the crime.

“I fear that if no criminal investigation is carried out today, there will be a strong reaction from the public, especially from PPP’s diehard workers who are desperately waiting for justice and punishment to those involved in the killing of their beloved leader,” he said.

Presiding over a meeting at the presidency before issuing the official statement, the president said: “The federal government under Gen Musharraf, although fully aware of and tracking the serious threats to Ms Bhutto, did little more than pass on those threats to her and was not proactive in neutralising them or ensuring that security provided was commensurate to the threats. The UN investigators’ concerns will be addressed in the fresh investigation already launched by the government last year.”

Mr Babar said the UN report would be examined by legal experts of the PPP. They would recommend to the party co-chairman necessary steps to be taken in the light of the report.

“Persons named in the report for negligence or complicity in the conspiracy will be investigated and cases will also be brought against them in the light of legal opinion,” he added.

Members of the media thought the government would issue an official reaction to the UN report or at least Interior Minister Rehman Malik would hold a press conference in the morning to answer dozens of questions about the UN report.

Many attempts were made to contact the interior minister, who was in charge of Ms Bhutto at the time of her assassination, but he did not attend telephone calls.

Officials told Dawn that all government quarters and authorities concerned had kept mum on the issue and sat together with Farhatullah Babar, who had been tasked with preparation of an official statement on the report.

Senator Abbasi, who was with Ms Bhutto in her vehicle at the time of the assassination, said that although the UN report did not impose any criminal liability on anyone, it provided leads to the government to initiate criminal investigation to unveil planners, perpetrators, abettors, financiers and attackers involved in the assassination.

Sources close to former Rawalpindi CPO Saud Aziz told Dawn that autopsy of Ms Bhutto could not be conducted on the directives of Mr Zardari.

But the UN report said the CPO on three occasions refused the request of doctors for carrying out post-mortem examination.

The sources said the CPO had insisted on her autopsy and written a letter to the higher authorities even from the Chaklala airbase, where Ms Bhutto’s body was sent for transportation to Ghari Khuda Bakhsh.

According to the sources, Mr Aziz had informed the authorities that the body was being taken without post-mortem. The UN report said: “CPO Saud Aziz’s role in this decision is controversial as many senior police officials emphasised that hosing down a crime scene was fundamentally inconsistent with Pakistani police practice.

“CPO Saud Aziz did not act independently in deciding to hose down the crime scene. He had received a call from Army headquarters instructing him to order the hosing down of the crime scene. The CPO was ordered to hose down the scene by Major General Nadeem Ijaz Ahmad, the then Director General of Military Intelligence.”

The sources said the CPO had rejected a perception that the site of her assassination had been washed on the directives of a hidden power. He was of the view that the crime scene was washed after collection of 23 different articles having direct links with the attack, including shells and bullets fired by a terrorist which were later matched by the investigators, the added.

The sources said the CPO had some objections to the UN report and claimed that the UN commission had not incorporated those details in its investigation report.

The UN report recalled that following Benazir’s assassination, the government had held a televised press conference, conducted by Brigadier Cheema, a spokesperson of the ministry of interior.

“The decision to hold the press conference was made by General Musharraf during a meeting on the morning of December 28 at a facility in General Headquarters known as Camp House. That meeting, at which General Musharraf was briefed on the intercept and on medical evidence, was attended by the directors-general of the ISI, MI and the IB.

“Brigadier Cheema was summoned to a subsequent meeting at ISI Headquarters and directed by the director general of the ISI to hold the press conference. In attendance at this second meeting, in addition to Brigadier Cheema, were Interior Secretary Kamal Shah, Director General of the ISI, Director General of the IB, Deputy Director General of the ISI and another ISI brigadier,” the report said.