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Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto Assassinated

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Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated just two months after returning to Pakistan from exile. She died after an apparent suicide attack in the city of Rawalpindi. Bhutto had just addressed an election rally when gunfire and an explosion occurred. We go to Pakistan and simulcast part of the breaking news coverage on Dawn News and speak with Sadaf Aziz, professor of law and policy at Lahore University of Management Sciences, and Zia Mian, a physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Breaking news from Pakistan. News now is that the former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, has been killed in a suicide bomb attack. We’re going to go now to a newsreel from Dawn News reporting in Pakistan.

    DAWN NEWS ANCHOR: …has just confirmed to us that Benazir Bhutto has expired. Benazir Bhutto has passed away due to critical injuries she received. We don’t know the reason of these injuries which Benazir received. And we have no official confirmation on Benazir passing away, but most of the hospital sources and the cameraman who was at hospital has confirmed. Most of the sources at the hospital, at Rawalpindi Hospital, are confirming that Benazir Bhutto has expired. Benazir Bhutto has expired a few hours after she had addressed her party workers at Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi. And minutes after her address, a blast took place, a huge explosion took place outside the main gate from where Benazir Bhutto was leaving.

AMY GOODMAN: What you are listening to and watching now was Benazir Bhutto speaking at a rally. Again, the latest news from Dawn News in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto killed, they believe. Let’s go back to the Dawn report.

    DAWN NEWS ANCHOR: … outside the main gate of Liaquat Bagh from where Benazir Bhutto was leaving minutes after her address, and it’s been a few — a couple of hours since this blast has taken place. And Babar Shahzadi [phon.], who is on the line with us, a senior correspondent, has confirmed that Benazir Bhutto has expired.

    We’re trying to get in touch with our correspondents who are at the Rawalpindi General Hospital, where Benazir Bhutto was brought to half-an-hour after the blast. And she was brought in with injuries. And Interior Ministry earlier on confirmed that Benazir Bhutto was in critical condition. But now our correspondents have confirmed from the hospital sources, reports from the hospital sources saying that Benazir Bhutto has expired. Benazir Bhutto has succumbed to the injuries. The injuries, we don’t know what of, but Benazir Bhutto has expired, according to the hospital sources. Many sources from the hospital, of Rawalpindi General Hospital, have said that Benazir Bhutto has expired. She was brought to Rawalpindi General Hospital for thirty or forty minutes after her address. And minutes after her address, a huge blast took place from exactly the site where Benazir Bhutto was exiting the Liaquat Bagh at the same main gate. Outside the main gate, a huge blast took place.

    Now, to get a further update on this situation, on this tragic incident, we have on the line with us — Mubashir, are you there? Could you give us an update on the situation at this moment on Benazir and the number of casualties? What do you have?

    MUBASHIR ZAIDI: Well, again, there are unconfirmed reports that Benazir Bhutto has expired, although some of the doctors of Rawalpindi General Hospital are confirming that that has happened. But the situation here is that so far, no official statement from the hospital has come, or the medical superintendents of the hospital have spoken on this issue, nor the PPP people are contactable at this moment to get a confirmation whether she has expired.

    But she was in very, very critical condition, and she was operated in emergency, where we heard that there was a bullet wound on her body, as well, although there’s no confirmation. There’s a lot of uncertainty about this incident and how she got injured, although we know there was a motorcyclist who blew himself up near her car when she was going back to her house towards Islamabad. And the moment she came out of Liaquat Bagh, that attack happened. And she was immediately taken to Rawalpindi General Hospital, along with Sherry Rehman, the information secretary of the party, who is also injured. And we got this news that Benazir Bhutto has expired. And doctors — no official statement so far has come, but all reports that are coming in are suggesting that she has expired because of her wounds.

    DAWN NEWS ANCHOR: Do you have any information on the condition, on the nature of Sherry Rehman’s injuries?

    MUBASHIR ZAIDI: Well, Sherry Rehman was brought to the hospital in a wheelchair, so she’s thought to be in serious condition, although it may not be as critical as with Ms. Benazir Bhutto was. But she is still being treated by the hospital doctors.

    And now the hospital is totally cordoned off by police and security forces. They’re not allowing anyone to come near to the hospital, although thousands of PPP workers and other leaders are waiting desperately outside to get a word out on Benazir Bhutto.

    DAWN NEWS ANCHOR: And what have you heard — what sort of an update have you heard on the number of casualties, the number of injured and the number of dead?

AMY GOODMAN: You have just been watching a live feed from Dawn News. You’ve just been watching a live feed from Dawn News in Pakistan and listening, for our radio listeners, to the breaking news: it was in Rawalpindi that a campaign rally, a rally was being held by the opposition leader, the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. And the news reports have it, though it’s all very confused and the news is coming in quickly from different directions, that Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated in a suicide bomb blast. We were bringing you a live report from Dawn News, and we’re going to continue to bring you that.

She had come back to Pakistan on October 18th. She was challenging, along with another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, the current president and general of Pakistan who declared martial law, General Musharraf. This is breaking news out of Pakistan.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’re going to try to go back to Pakistan right now — in a minute. We’re going to go to a break, though.

This news is extremely significant, the latest news that we have been bringing you. Our headline story before we learned of the Pakistani former prime minister being assassinated, Benazir Bhutto, we were reporting on US Special Forces expecting to vastly expand their presence in Pakistan beginning in 2008, the US troops reportedly taking part in an effort to train and support Pakistani counterinsurgency forces and clandestine counterterrorism units. We also brought you news that while the US expands its presence in Pakistan, questions have been raised over how Pakistan spent $5 billion in US aid since September 11th, the money supposed to have been sent to fight al-Qaeda and Taliban, instead US officials admitting funds were diverted to help finance weapons systems to counter India, another US ally.

Let’s see if we can go back right now to Pakistan to bring you the latest news reports that are coming out of Pakistan. We’ve been hooking up in a broadcast with Dawn News. Let’s go to — we are going to bring you more from Pakistan in a minute, but first we’re going to go to break for stations to identify themselves. Again, if you are just joining the broadcast today of Democracy Now!, we’re bringing you live breaking news from Pakistan. The news reports are that the opposition leader, the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has been assassinated. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We are bringing you this breaking news from Pakistan, and that is the former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, who returned in October to Pakistan to contest the rule of the President, General Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated as she was speaking, assassinated in a suicide blast that has killed, well, untold numbers of others.

We’re going to turn right now to Zia Mian. He is a physics professor at Princeton University in the Program on Science and Global Security. He also is a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus. Professor Mian is a Pakistani physicist, a Pakistani and American. Welcome to Democracy Now! I know you have just learned this news, Zia Mian. Your reaction?

ZIA MIAN: This is amazing, but not a complete surprise. We know that there was a big suicide bombing that was directed at trying to kill Benazir Bhutto on the very day that she arrived in Pakistan from her years in exile. And she had warned that there were going to be attempts on her life. General Musharraf had also said that militants might try and disrupt the elections. So it’s very tragic, but not a complete surprise.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of Benazir Bhutto, of her whole family> Her father also was assassinated.

ZIA MIAN: Benazir Bhutto’s father had been a charismatic politician who had served as a civilian in a previous military dictatorship in Pakistan as the foreign minister of Pakistan, and he had set up his own political party, which Benazir inherited from him. And he had tried to rig elections after he had become prime minister in 1971 and triggered a major protest movement against himself. And he had actually been hung by the previous military dictator of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq, for murdering his political opponents. And so , the whole family has been fundamental to the politics of Pakistan for more than thirty years and has had a very tragic history.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to physics professor Zia Mian, who is originally from Pakistan. He teaches at Princeton University and writes on politics and public affairs for Foreign Policy in Focus. Talk about why Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan. She was in exile for many years.

ZIA MIAN: Well, Benazir Bhutto served as prime minister of Pakistan twice, once in the late 1980s and again in the mid-1990s. Both times, there were very serious allegations of corruption against her administration and people in her administration and directed against, in particular, her husband and herself. And so, when Nawaz Sharif had become prime minister of Pakistan, she had fled the country because of these corruption charges against her, and she had stayed in exile for many, many years to evade going to court to clear these allegations.

But then, with the support of Washington and the Bush administration and from the British government, she had negotiated terms for her return to Pakistan with General Musharraf, in which General Musharraf passed a law specifically dropping the corruption charges against her, not part of any general amnesty against other people, but just her. In exchange, she was supposed to come to Pakistan, participate in the elections and support General Musharraf being president, and he would allow her to run for prime minister of Pakistan in the general elections. And so, it was going to be a power-sharing between Benazir and General Musharraf.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Zia Mian. He is here in the United States responding to the latest news that we’ve gotten out of Pakistan, the assassination of the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who returned in October to challenge the current president, the General Pervez Musharraf, has just been killed in a suicide blast. The latest news we have, Zia Mian, is that the other former prime minister who was challenging Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif, has just made it to the hospital, where, according to news reports, according to Dawn News, Benazir Bhutto was brought to be operated on, but the latest news is that she has expired. His significance and his relationship with her?

ZIA MIAN: Well, they were — if there’s a two-party political dynamic in Pakistan, it was between Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League. They alternated as prime ministers, taking power from each other in elections through the late ’80s and early ’90s. And so, they are bitter political opponents, of course, but both of them were opposed to General Musharraf, because General Musharraf was responsible for throwing both of them out of politics. Nawaz Sharif was also exiled by General Musharraf and has spent many years living in Saudi Arabia. And he also recently returned to participate in these elections, until Pakistan’s election commission, appointed by General Musharraf, denied him the right to stand as a candidate in these elections.

AMY GOODMAN: Zia Mian, we’re going to go right now to Pakistan. I’d like you to stay on the line. We’re joined by Professor Sadaf Aziz from Lahore University. She teaches law and policy there. Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the latest you understand about the assassination of Benazir Bhutto? That’s the news we’re hearing here, Sadaf Aziz.

SADAF AZIZ: Hi. I’m sorry, I’m hearing your voice very faintly. But I’m just receiving the latest sort of media coverage of it myself. I’m on campus right now, so I’ve just discovered that this happened, as, you know, various friends and family have been calling each other and, you know, at this moment there’s an incredible amount of shock over this. In spite of the fact that, you know, this attempt was made on her life on the day of her arrival here, I think that this was truly just not anticipated.

I think the idea was that — what people understood was that Musharraf had basically accomplished what he wanted to accomplish with the last emergency. He had debilitated the judiciary. He had debilitated or eroded the power of the media. And now those things are being used to his own end. So the electoral aspect of it, although highly irregular in the sense that the elections were going ahead, were obviously skewed very much in favor of the PML-Q, then nonetheless the momentum that was being built up, the popular support of Benazir, obviously [inaudible] command in Pakistan was pretty clear-cut.

However, I mean, because there seemed to be certain overwhelming sense that these elections would be rigged, in the same manner that previous 2002 elections were rigged by virtue of the local bodies intervening in a particular way, [inaudible] party, the PML-Q and the like, it just seems, you know, gratuitous and unnecessary. And it’s shocking is all I can say at this stage. Anything that I know about her, the actual assassination, you know, it’s just what I’m hearing on the media right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Sadaf Aziz, joining us from Lahore University. Zia Mian, on the phone with us from Princeton, New Jersey. Zia Mian, can you add to that, to what Sadaf Aziz is telling us from Lahore University? Of course, the country, Pakistan, is in shock right now.

ZIA MIAN: Well, the important thing to remember here is that when Benazir first arrived back from exile and there was a suicide bombing directed against her, which killed many people, she had accused people close to General Musharraf’s administration of, if not just being negligent, of being directly responsible in some way in that attack on her. But at the same time, one has to remember that during her election campaigning, Benazir has been making a very strong case that if she were elected, she would be much stronger and much more determined in taking on the Islamic militancy that’s been spreading out of the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. And so, there’s good reason to believe that the Islamic militants who have been responsible for a wave of suicide bombings across Pakistan in many major cities and have tried to kill General Musharraf and other political leaders, that they may have taken this upon themselves to launch another attack against Benazir Bhutto, because they see her as a threat.

AMY GOODMAN: We are showing for our TV viewers live footage directly from Pakistan right now. The latest news, again, Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated, unclear how many people were also killed in addition to the former prime minister at this point in this suicide blast. Sadaf Aziz, what do you see, the reaction now, what this will lead to in Pakistan, where you are in Lahore?

SADAF AZIZ: Well, it’s hard to say. I mean, you know, I can imagine that there’s going to be a taking to the streets. And, you know, potentially in Karachi, as we saw, she commands a great deal of sort of street support there, and in [inaudible] already hearing sort of cautions because — don’t go out tonight; there’s going to be a lot of violence, that sort of a thing. I think it’s quite potentially, you know, impossible —- I can’t imagine, of course, that the elections are going to go ahead. Whether or not this will, you know, be the basis, the pretext, for another declaration of emergency or the imposition of martial law or something, that obviously, you know, we can sort of obviously have the answer to probably fairly soon, if not by tonight, then the next day or so. So I think that -—

AMY GOODMAN: Sadaf Aziz, can you talk about the —-

SADAF AZIZ: —- there’s the potential for a great deal of sort of, you know, actual conflagration and a potential for a great deal of violence to happen on the streets now.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Zia Mian: can you talk about the significance of where she was killed near Rawalpindi?

ZIA MIAN: Well, I don’t know exactly where in Rawalpindi she was killed, so it’s hard. But Rawalpindi itself is the site where the very first prime minister of Pakistan was also killed. And so, in that sense, it has a very famous political history in Pakistan.

It’s also the place which is the headquarters of the Pakistan army general headquarters, and this has been traditionally the power base from which the Pakistan military has exercised its influence. It’s only a few kilometers away from the capital, Islamabad.

But I think the thing that we really need to focus on here, in terms of the long term, is that the People’s Party, of which Benazir Bhutto was the leader, is now left leaderless at a key moment in Pakistan’s politics and Pakistan’s history. This is a party which was led, as I said before, by her father before her. And so, without a Bhutto to lead this party, what happens to it? And it is important, because this is the major national political party that has some kind centrist, center-left commitment to poverty and social justice issues. And, you know, what happens to this party now, not just in these elections, but in the coming years, as it tries to rethink its relationship about what it is and who leads it and how it functions?

AMY GOODMAN: Zia Mian, I want to thank you very much for being with us, a physicist at Princeton University. Sadaf Aziz, joining us from Lahore, teaching law and policy at Lahore University, responding to this breaking news, the news we have just gotten out of Pakistan that the former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, the opposition to the current General Pervez Musharraf, the current president, has been assassinated. Benazir Bhutto is dead.

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