Saturday, October 9, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Who Assassinated Benazir Bhutto / Author: Shakeel Anjum

Thank you Dost Publication for the review copy
First Published in Daily Times / 09 Oct 2010

Reviewed by - Afrah Jamal

It is not every day one finds the author of a book about murder himself implicated in a triple homicide. In our part of the world, however, it could simply mean that the ‘suspect’ was too snoopy for his/her own good or simply stepped on some VIP’s toes. Fortunately, it was the latter case here (he fell out with the Islamabad police) and an exonerated Shakeel Anjum shakes off the stigma of a murderer and dons the garb of a detective. He is, after all, a crime reporter who has been associated with a local English daily for a long time and has clocked 32 years in the arena. This provides him with the requisite credentials to dive into the deep end but it may not necessarily give him groundbreaking investigative journalistic powers to ferret out the truth about Benazir’s assassination. Yet, this is exactly what the author claims to have done.

The purpose of the book is ostensibly to unveil the ‘real’ culprits of a high profile political assassination caught on camera, by taking it apart — one frame at a time. It will revisit the scene of the crime from every conceivable (and some inconceivable) angle to determine what he calls the “causation of death”. At the time of the incident, the international media was rife with speculations; some wondered about a possible low-level military involvement, others looked towards the northwest, trying to pin down militant outfits. The local media mirrored the mood, adding a few spicy details of their own; but a good portion of their time slot was devoted to hypothesising about how the victim died (lever or gunshot). Though the militants topped the list of suspects while shadowy hands were a close second, the case was never satisfactorily resolved despite the intervention of foreign experts and swearing in of the deceased’s own party.

The primary controversy at the time centred on the ‘cause of death’. The writer leads with this line of inquiry, probably because of the contradictory statements issued by the authorities in charge. Scotland Yard ruled death by lever (head injury as a result of the explosion) and a local expert from the Joint Investigative Team, Major (retd) Shafqat discredited the theory while his team sided with the Yard. This gentleman (referred to here as an FIA forensic expert who has no parallel in the subcontinent) happily accuses Scotland Yard of ‘result fixing’, to match the government-sanctioned verdict.

Since the shooting preceded the bomb blast, covering up the possible existence of a bullet wound served no purpose and it did not impact the search for ‘who’. The presence of a concealed sniper could have justified the frenzy, but the shooter stood in plain sight. The book, however, frets about this ‘how’ and uses the controversy as a springboard to launch bizarre theories. The writer’s take on the lever/gun situation will confound many but his argument that creating such doubts was a ploy on the government’s part to hijack the PPP’s sympathy vote will floor all.

While he tries to arrange all facts meticulously, bravely declaring that “it is not hard to make a hypothetical conclusion that clearly indicates who was behind this bloody assassination”, he falters in his quest. All he really does is add to the list of suspects instead of whittling it down while accusing all three governments of being complicit in the cover-up; these include the PML-Q, the interim set-up, and the PPP.

Because the crime scene was compromised, suspects annihilated, an autopsy prevented and obvious security lapses witnessed on each side, many like him will hesitate before putting some obscure militant organisation on the stand. The writer is right to be concerned with the odd behaviour of the investigative bodies, but he has not mastered the art of objective reporting. Consequently, even if there is any idea worth pursuing here, it requires a salvage crew with the patience of a saint to retrieve it from under the pile of scrap.

It is probably the first time a sentence like “pulling cosmetic rabbits out of a grinning bag” will be seen anywhere and hopefully it will be the last time a CIA director is quoted saying words like “slain dead” with a straight face. It should also be the only time a book like this is allowed to assassinate the English language, what with its appalling grammar, absurd headings (‘Yarders findings disbelieve’), misspelling, poorly worded/incomplete sentences and repetitive paragraphs. But, in some later edition, even when all these horrific mistakes are corrected, a book that vacations in conspiracy theory land, backtracking to retrieve old ideas, retelecasting them ad infinitum, ad nauseam, brings on spatial disorientation.

The only relief comes in portions not concerned with crime solving that reproduce an interview with the deceased given at the Academy of Achievement (Washington DC), documents the global reaction to the murder and draws parallels with the Hariri assassination (the Lebanese prime minister).

In the end, the real culprits need not worry. There is a vacant lot next to two other high profile assassination cases: Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan (1951) and President Ziaul Haq (1988). And they are still pending.

Published in Daily Times (Saturday, October 09, 2010)under the title: A collection of whodunits

Dost Publication; Pp 290; Rs 495

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