UNITED NATIONS -- In a scathing report, a United Nations fact-finding commission has concluded that the Pakistani authorities failed on all levels to protect former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto when she was assassinated in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi in December 2007.
In unusually harsh language, the commission headed by Chilean diplomat Heraldo Munoz lists a number of preventable events in the days and hours preceding the assassination which, if properly handled, it said, could have averted the tragedy.
The 65-page report, released on April 15, also said it "believes that the failure of the police to investigate effectively Ms. Bhutto's assassination was deliberate."
The commission also included the former attorney-general of Indonesia, Marzuki Darusman, and the former deputy commissioner of the Irish Police, Peter Fitzgerald,
Munoz said Bhutto's death in a suicide bomb attack could have been prevented if adequate security measures had been taken.
"Responsibility for Ms. Bhutto's security on the day of the assassination rested with the federal government, the government of Punjab, and the Rawalpindi District Police," Munoz told reporters. "None of these entities took the necessary measures to respond to the extraordinary, fresh and urgent security risks that they knew she faced."
The report criticizes what it called the inaction of the Pakistani government under then President Pervez Musharraf, saying that was "especially grave" given the attempt on her life in Karachi when she returned to Pakistan from London just two months before her death:
"The federal government under General Musharraf, although fully aware of, and tracking, the serious threats to Ms. Bhutto's security, did little more than pass on those threats to her and to provincial authorities and were not proactive in neutralizing them or ensuring that the security provided was commensurate to the threats," Munoz said. "The federal government failed in its primary responsibility to provide effective protection to Ms. Bhutto on her return to Pakistan."
The report was also critical of Pakistani authorities' investigation into the killing.
It said the Rawalpindi district police's actions and omissions in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, including the hosing down of the crime scene and failure to collect and preserve evidence, inflicted "irreparable damage" to the investigation.
"No one believes," the report says, that the 15-year-old suicide bomber who threw himself near the vehicle carrying Bhutto, was acting alone.
Bhutto faced numerous threats from a number of sources, the report says: Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, local jihadi groups, and, potentially, elements in the Pakistani establishment.
Yet the commission found that the investigation focused on pursuing "lower level operatives and placed little to no focus on investigating those further up the hierarchy in the planning, financing and execution of the assassination."
Munoz said the investigation was severely hampered by the Pakistani intelligence agencies and other government officials,
"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," Munoz said.
The commission makes it clear that it was not involved in a criminal investigation -- that’s up to the Pakistani authorities -- and only in a fact-finding mission.
But its view is clear -- that there was a cover-up at the higher levels of Pakistan's intelligence and security apparatus to prevent a proper investigation of Bhutto’s assassination and to bring the culprits to justice.
The commission visited Pakistan on three separate trips, conducted more than 250 interviews with citizens and officials inside and outside Pakistan and reviewed hundreds of documents, videos, photographs and other documentary material.
But some senior Pakistani officials with detailed knowledge of the assassination were not made available to the commission.
The commission was "mystified," the report says, by the efforts of certain high-ranking Pakistani government authorities to obstruct access to military and intelligence sources.
The enquiry faced other obstacles. It started its work more than 18 months after the assassination, in July 2009, a delay that severely limited the scope of its activities and conclusions.
The commission met also with senior officials from Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. who had knowledge of certain details leading up to Bhutto’s assassination.
But a requested meeting with then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was declined, Munoz said, as was a meeting with senior intelligence officials from Saudi Arabia.
In addition, the commission requested but was not granted interviews with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and with then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad, who was intimately involved in negotiating Bhutto's return to Pakistan.
The unveiling of the report at the United Nations headquarters in New York carried its own element of drama: It was initially scheduled for March 30 but after an urgent appeal from the President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower, it was postponed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon until April 15.
Then 10 minutes before the official unveiling of the report, Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN, Abdullah Haroon, abruptly canceled a scheduled press conference and flew to Islamabad to deliver the report to his government in person.