Benazir Bhutto

Just recently I read that seven men were indicted in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first and to date only female prime minister.  Those indicted were two senior police officers and five suspected Taliban militants.  The officers were arrested a year ago while the suspected militants have been in custody for nearly four years.  The alleged militants are charged with criminal conspiracy and accused of helping the suicide bomber who killed Bhutto.  The police offers face charges of failure to protect Bhutto. Prosecutor Mohammad Azhar said they are accused of changing the security plan for Bhutto.  One can’t help wonder how a suicide bomber could get so close to Bhutto, especially after previous attempts were made on her life, including a bombing on Oct. 18, 2007 near her motorcade in Karachi.

Benazir Bhutto served two terms as prime minister and had recently returned to Pakistan from a self-imposed exile striking a deal with the military ruler at the time, Pervez Musharraf.  She was killed while leaving a campaign rally for the PPP at Liaquat National Bagh on December 27, 2007 while travelling in a convoy following an election rally in Rawalpindi.  No doubt people are hoping that justice will be served.  The assassination took place two weeks before the scheduled Pakistani general election of 2008 in which she was a leading opposition candidate.  The following year, she was named one of seven winners of the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights.

Before attempts were made on her life, Benazir Bhutto had her share of trouble with the government.  After her father,  Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, elected prime minister was overthrown, she spent the next eighteen months in and out of house arrest as she struggled to rally political support to force General Zia-ul-Haq to drop murder charges against her father.  Things didn’t work out, unfortunately.  General Zia-ul-Haq ignored worldwide appeals for clemency and had Zulfikar Bhutto hanged in April 1979.  After the hanging of her father, Benazir Bhutto was repeatedly arrested and repeatedly placed under house arrest.  During the summer of 1981, the regime finally imprisoned her under solitary confinement in a desert cell in Sindhi province.  She described the conditions in her wall-less cage in her book “Daughter of Destiny“, which goes by the title of “Daughter of the East” in Commonwealth countries for copyright reasons.

“The summer heat turned my cell into an oven. My skin split and peeled, coming off my hands in sheets. Boils erupted on my face. My hair, which had always been thick, began to come out by the handful. Insects crept into the cell like invading armies. Grasshoppers, mosquitoes, stinging flies, bees and bugs came up through the cracks in the floor and through the open bars from the courtyard. Big black ants, cockroaches, seething clumps of little red ants and spiders. I tried pulling the sheet over my head at night to hide from their bites, pushing it back when it got too hot to breathe.”

Benazir Bhutto was allowed to leave Pakistan in 1984.  She settled in London and while living there, she and her two brothers founded an underground organization to resist General Zia’s military dictatorship.  A year later when her brother died, she returned to Pakistan for his burial and was arrested  for participating in anti-government rallies.  After her release she returned to London.  Martial law was lifted in Pakistan at the end of the year, anti-Zia demonstrations resumed and Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in April 1986.  She called publicly for the resignation of Zia Ul Haq, whose government had executed her father.

Benazir Bhutto was elected co-chairwoman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) along with her mother.  In 1988 when free elections were finally held, Benazir became Prime Minister at the age of 35, earning her the distinction of being one of the youngest chief executives in the world and the first woman to serve as prime minister in an Islamic country.  After serving only two years of her first term, Benazir Bhutto was dismissed from office by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.  She promptly initiated an anti-corruption campaign, and in 1993 was re-elected as Prime Minister.  While in office, she brought electricity to the countryside and built schools all over the country.  She made hunger, housing and health care her top priorities and looked forward to continuing to modernize Pakistan.  She sought to improve the country’s economy which was declining as the time was passing.

Benazir Bhutto faced much opposition from the Islamic fundamentalist movement.  Her estranged brother, Mir Murtaza, leveled charges of corruption against Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari.  In a strange twist of events, Mir died when his bodyguard became involved in a gunfight with police in Karachi.  The Pakistani public was shocked by this turn of events and PPP supporters were divided over the charges against Zardari.

Benazir Bhutto was pro-life and spoke strongly against abortion.  She did not receive support from leading women organizations, who argued that after being elected twice, none of the reforms were made, instead controversial laws were exercised more toughly.  Not surprisingly, in 1997 elections, Bhutto failed to secure any support from women’s organizations and minorities also she got the cold-shoulder when she approached them.  There were economic issues which didn’t improve during her leadership.  The standard of living declined as inflation and unemployment grew at an alarming rate.  The difference between rich and poor visibly increased and the middle class in particular were the ones who suffered from the major economic inequality

The relationship between Bangladesh and Pakistan became strained and tensions arose when Benazir Bhutto ordered a crackdown on and deportation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.  She was criticized for her action by religious parties who dubbed the crackdown as anti-Islamic.  Her foreign policy was described as controversial and difficult for experts to describe in words.  She initially supported the Taliban.  She, like many others at the time, viewed the Taliban as a group that could stabilize Afghanistan and enable trade access to the Central Asian republics.  Author Stephen Coll claims that Bhutto’s government provided military and financial support for the Taliban, even sending a small unit of the Pakistani army into Afghanistan. During her regime, Bhutto’s government had controversially supported the hardline Taliban, and many of her government officials were providing financial assistance to the Taliban.  However, in 2007, she took an anti-Taliban stance and condemned terrorist acts allegedly committed by the Taliban and their supporters.

Benazir Bhutto faced parliamentary opposition from 1996-1999.  She and her husband faced corruption charges which she claimed were purely political.  Despite numerous cases and charges of corruption registered against Bhutto by Nawaz Sharif between 1996–1999 and Pervez Musharraf from 1999 till 2008, she was yet to be convicted in any case.  The cases were withdrawn by the government of Pakistan after the return to power of Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party in 2008.   Bhutto did not live to see her party’s overhelming victory in the 2008 elections.  PPP member, Yousaf Raza Gillani was chosen to serve as Prime Minister and later that year, following the resignation of President Musharraf Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari was elected President of Pakistan.

Although, controversy surrounded Pakistan’s first and only female Prime Minister, she still left a legacy behind.  The Pakistani government honoured Bhutto on her birth anniversary by renaming  the Islamabad International Airport as Benazir Bhutto International Airport, Muree Roadof Rawalpindias Benazir Bhutto Roadand Rawalpindi GeneralHospitalas Benazir Bhutto Hospital. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, a member of Bhutto’s PPP, also asked President Pervez Musharraf to pardon convicts on death row on her birthday in honour of Bhutto.

Notes to Women remembers this pioneer for democracy and hope that those who are responsible for her death will be brought to justice.

Despite threats of death, I will not acquiesce to tyranny, but rather lead the fight against it.

Democracy needs support and the best support for democracy comes from other democracies. Democratic nations should come together in an association designed to help each other and promote what is a universal value — democracy.

Democracy is necessary to peace and to undermining the forces of terrorism.

You can imprison a man, but not an idea. You can exile a man, but not an idea. You can kill a man, but not an idea.

Now, when people are dying, you don’t really look at who’s offering the help. You take it. The first issue should be to help the people.

Benazir Bhutto



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