Bhutto Assassination: Funeral and Prognosis for Pakistan

Syeda Abida Hussain
Pakistan Peoples Party and Former Ambassador to the U.S.
Friday, December 28, 2007; 12:00 PM

Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday at a campaign rally, two months after returning from exile to attempt a political comeback.

Full Coverage: Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007)

Syeda Abida Hussain, a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party, former ambassador to the U.S. and personal friend of Benazir Bhutto, was online Friday, Dec. 28, at Noon ET to discuss the latest information surrounding the assassination, the current political situation in Pakistan and what effect the assassination will have on the country's upcoming parliamentary elections.

A transcript follows.


New York, N.Y.: How will Bhutto's death affect the upcoming parliamentary elections? Will they still be held?

Syeda Abida Hussain: It's extremely doubtful at this moment. The other party led by former prime minsiter Sharif has announced a boycott of the election and the Pakistan Peoples Party leadership will refocus on our strategy tomorrow or possibly the day after. The emotional response is that we should vote out this totally inept and vindictive government sponsored by Pervez Musharraf. That is the emotional response of very many people here.

On the other hand, the more contemplative people now believe that the government sponsored by Musharraf feel they may rig the ballot and prevent a fair outcome. So people would now be allowed to believe that now Benazir is dead and her party's in disintegration and disarray.


Bethesda, Md.: When was the last time you talked with Benazir Bhutto, last communication? Did she fear for her life?

Syeda Abida Hussain: I had a long conversation with her which went on for two hours on the night of Dec. 13 and the last e-mail that I exchanged with her was Dec. 15 and she responded on the 17th and then I sent her an e-mail the day before yesterday but never got a response.

In the course of my conversation with her on Dec. 13, there were two other people present, her political secretary and her husband, and she asked me what I thought of the impending outcome of the polling which was about three weeks down the road. She asked me how we were doing. I said we would be winning a strong majority and I said I was no longer worried about the election but I am worried about your security. I told her that her life would be in danger. Musharraf's party people were desperate because it looked good for the PPP, had mismanaged public resources and made it difficult to get more protection.

She gave me a hard look and talked and said, "But Abida, we've started something now, we have to carry it through." She was incredibly courageous.


Washington, D.C.: The Interior Ministry is saying that Benazir did not die from shrapnel or gunfire but that she died from hitting her head somehow. What do you believe? Has there been an autopsy?

Syeda Abida Hussain: They took her body to government hospital and the autopsy was performed by government doctors and they have kept changing their statements. First it was gunfire, they then said it was shrapnel and now they're saying it was the sunroof that fell on her.

The ten-hour drive from the south of Punjab to Sindh Province and every town that we passed, there were protestors, fires. Even people that did not support Benazir Bhutto. She has caused an earthquake in the country. She is now the stuff that legends are made of. Now what can the government to except fall?

The government is guilty and they're desperately attempting a clumsy coverup -- that is why there are various reports of the cause of her death.


Raleigh, N.C.: Please explain Muslim burial customs and how they relate to the funeral today. Also, what was Bhutto's relationship to Islam? She was Sunni, right? What branch, etc.?

Syeda Abida Hussain: She was a Sunni Muslim and in the Muslim way the dead body is bathed and cleaned and wound in a white sheet and the sheet is placed in a casket which is lowered into the ground. She was buried beside her father in the family mausoleum.

Benazir, to the best of my knowledge, was a firmly believing Muslim. She was not ritualistic but she had great faith in the creator of the universe in his infinity and in his goodness and in his mercy.


]Washington, D.C.: How does Bhutto's death change the Pakistani people's feeling toward U.S.-Pakistan relations?

Syeda Abida Hussain: One family member of Benazir said to me that you and Benazir were crazy to believe the Americans. The Americans are nobody's friends. They pushed her in the direction of Musharraf and they could not persuade Musharraf to spare her life. The Americans are a failure, they make failed commitments, failed promises. Bush cannot deliver on anything, either to his own people nor to the people of the world. This was one relative's outrage expressed to me.

But the same thought has been echoed by numerous Pakistanis.

If President Bush keeps pressing on with his pro-Musharraf policies he will lose the hearts and minds of the people of Pakistan.


Washington, D.C.: You are a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party. What will the party do now that its leader, Benazir Bhutto, is dead?

Syeda Abida Hussain: The party will caucus on how to remain united and what to do about the elections and I think more or less everybody will look towards Benazir Bhutto's husband and her young son, who's an undergraduate at Oxford, who flew in for his mother's burial as did her daughters with their father.

Everyone will look to her husband and what he says will be definitive.


Arlington, Va.: How long will the unrest last in the country?

Syeda Abida Hussain: I think the unrest will go on for a while. As we enter from Punjab into Sindh we saw people coming out of hamlets to look at every vehicle, they didn't stop us, they recognized me and the people came out and gave a cheer, "Long live Benazir," they shouted. They did not stop us but they were very hostile to anybody who did not have a PPP party flag. Also, we saw at least 100 oil tankers and heavy vehicles that were blocked and prevented from going up country because Sindh has the only port of Pakistan, the gateway. Punjab is therefore likely to see fuel shortages, energy shortages. What we observed was that between the entry and coming to the first major city where we are at at the moment we saw half a dozen military vehicles with soldiers standing by the roadside looking quite scared being surrounded by the people of Sindh.


Caracas, Venezuela: As a result of this assassination, will the government of Pakistan now either confront the terrorists within their borders or allow NATO to do this?

Syeda Abida Hussain: There is no reason to believe that they will track down the terrorists if, in fact, it was terrorists, because they weren't able to track them down on the day of her arrival on Oct. 18 in Pakistan. One hundred seventy-nine people were killed and she had a narrow escape and so did I with the bombs exploding.


Washington, D.C.: Are there any opponents now to Musharraf in the upcoming election? Do you think it should be postponed?

Syeda Abida Hussain: I don't think this will be an election. I think it will be a farse. Bush of America, Prime Minister Brown of Britain ... how can they dictate for us? There has been more and more death and disorder. Now they are dictating to us?


Summit, N.J.: Bhutto had only been back in Pakistan a few weeks before she was assassinated, what kept the party together while she was in exile? What would have been the outcome of the election had she not returned?

Syeda Abida Hussain: Had she not returned her party people would have been disspirited by her absence. In 2002 the PPP performed magnificently even though she was out of country and the people believed she would be back and she therefore felt that she owed her constituency a return to Pakistan.


Fairfax, Va.: Why would al-Qaeda want to kill the former prime minister?

Syeda Abida Hussain: Was it al-Qaeda? I don't believe it was al-Qaeda. I believe it was Musharraf's gunmen, sharpshooters. The autopsy is garbage. That report is for the birds. It was by government doctors who had revolvers shoved in their spines while writing that report. We'll never know for sure but this is the cry of the people. Musharraf has done it; that is what every man, woman and child is crying right now as I drive along the streets.

I've been on the road for 10 hours and every hamlet, every town, people have been shouting, "Musharraf's done it."


Syeda Abida Hussain: The period of bereavement/mourning is for 40 days. The party workers throughout the country will offer special prayers every Thursday and Friday for 40 days.


Washington, D.C.: It is ironic that Ms. Benazir Bhutto is being heralded as a great democratic leader when she and Nawaz Sharif are most responsible for undermining Pakistan's democracy through their misrule and corruption. Ms. Bhutto was dismissed by President Leghari, her close associate who was handpicked by Ms. Bhutto. Let us also not forget that Ms. Bhutto's father, Zulfiqar Bhutto, was the first Pakistani leader to patronize Islamic radicals. Democracy in South Asia cannot rest on family rule -- who do you see emerging to fill the vacuum in PPP?

Syeda Abida Hussain: I think this the rant of a crazy. This is the standard militaristic line.


Anonymous: Being aware of the consistent threats on her life, why had Bhutto not highlighted a successor within her party?

Syeda Abida Hussain: She did have an acting president while she was away. His name was Amin Sahim. He was there at her funeral. He sat beside her in the vehicle she was traveling in. I think he will take over in the interim.


Syeda Abida Hussain: That is a personal assessment.

_______________________ This concludes our discussion with Syeda Abida Hussain. Thank you for joining us.


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