December 31, 2007

Pakistan Postpones Elections Amid Unrest

Pakistan has decided to push back its January 8 elections by at least four weeks, due to the unrest sweeping the nation after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The rioting comes at least in part over the controversy surrounding the cause of death. As it turns out, no autopsy has been performed, and for a surprising reason:

Pakistan's elections will be delayed by at least four weeks due to mass unrest after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a cabinet official told AFP.

Other government and election officials confirmed that the January 8 polls would be postponed.

Bhutto's party rejected any delay and insisted the government should stick to the schedule, but a spokesman for Nawaz Sharif, another major opposition leader, said a short postponement "would be acceptable."

The vote is under scrutiny around the world as President Pervez Musharraf pledges to complete the Islamic nation's transition to civilian-led democracy after eight years of his military rule.

Pakistan could not stage an election with any hope of success at the moment. Dozens have died over the last few days from rioting, and the government could not provide the security necessary to make the elections reliable. Nawaz Sharif understood this and had demanded a postponement, saying that he would otherwise boycott the elections. The temptation for Pervez Musharraf to manipulate his security apparatus to influence the election would be far too great.

Musharraf must hope that the outrage will settle down in a few weeks. The latest information concerning Bhutto's assassination will not help. No one performed an autopsy, but not because the Musharraf government tried to get by without one. Bhutto's husband refused to allow it:

The medical report, prepared with six other doctors, does not specifically mention a bullet because the actual cause of the head wound was to be left to an autopsy, Mr. Minallah said. The doctors had stressed to him that “without an autopsy it is not at all possible to determine as to what had caused the injury,” he wrote.

But the chief of police in Rawalpindi, Saud Aziz, “did not agree” to the autopsy request by the doctors, Mr. Minallah said in his letter.

A former senior Pakistani police official, Wajahat Latif, who headed the Federal Investigative Agency in the early 1990s, said that in “any case of a suspected murder an autopsy is mandatory.” To waive an autopsy, Mr. Latif said, relatives were required to apply for permission.

At a news conference Sunday, Ms. Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, said he had declined a request for a post-mortem examination. “It was an insult to my wife, an insult to the sister of the nation, an insult to the mother of the nation,” he said. “I know their forensic reports are useless. I refuse to give them her last remains.”

The post-mortem consisted only of a passive examination -- looking at the body. They could not open the skull to see whether a bullet remained lodged in the brain after her death. According to the notes of the examination, however, it seems rather clear that the injury didn't come from a sunroof handle. The report talks about "whitish material which looked like brain matter" outside of the wound. A sunroof handle wouldn't have produced that kind of ejecta.

The decision not to allow an autopsy played into the hands of those who wanted to play a little CYA, but that makes little sense other than strictly as a panicked notion. As many have speculated, the notion of a gunman getting that close to Bhutto makes security look pretty damned poor. The alternate version doesn't really improve matters; even if she died as a result of a sunroof handle hitting her head, the suicide bomber got close enough to the car, too. In any event, independent video clearly shows someone shooting at Bhutto, so the jig is up on protecting the security detail.

Perhaps the family might consider an exhumation for an autopsy performed by a competent Western coroner. That might go a long way towards settling these questions, and at the same time bringing an end to the rioting throughout Pakistan. With a few weeks postponement of the election, the time would be ripe now for that kind of action.


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