Senior leaders of the Pakistan People's Party, and close friends and confidantes of the assassinated former party leader and erstwhile prime minister Benazir Bhutto [Images], who began a week-long visit in Washington, accused President Pervez Musharraf [Images] and his regime of a cover-up of the Bhutto killing.
Javaid R Laghari, a PPP senator from Sindh, and Sherry Rehman, president of Central Policy Planning and Central Information Secretary of the PPP, who kicked off their interactions in Washington with a briefing at the Brookings Institution -- a leading think tank here -- also alleged that the Musharraf government was diverting US security assistance to rig the parliamentary election scheduled for February 18 to deny the PPP of a runaway victory at the polls.
Laghari, who was previously director of graduate studies and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said that Scotland Yard was being restricted by the Musharraf regime, and this is why an investigation of Bhutto's killing by the United Nations along the lines of the investigation of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri was imperative.
"The Scotland Yard probe is very restrictive," he said. "If you look at the terms of reference as to why Scotland Yard people are out there, you will notice that its hands are tied. They are not working independently. They are only to determine the cause of death, and they are only to report to and work under Pakistani government investigators."
Thus, Laghari said that their probe "is very, very restrictive and very, very limited."
He also took a hefty swipe at the Central Intelligence Agency for having said that it is in sync with the Musharraf government's contention that Bhutto was killed by elements of the Al Qaeda [Images] linked with militant leader Baitullah Mehsud.
"To add to the confusion to this (probe into the killing), there have been CIA statements about the involvement of Al Qaeda," Laghari said.
Riciduling both the Musharraf regime's assertions and the CIA's acquiescence that it was Mehsud's faction that had been responsible for Bhutto's assassination, Laghari said, "You find statements by Baitullah Mehsud saying we are not involved; there has been a recording which he denies, and now when the government goes out to look for Beitullah Mehsud, they can't find him."
"They can get his phone number, they can record his conversation, and in the recorded conversation, they know exactly where he is, because he's telling them, 'Well, I am here,' but now 100,000 troops can't find him."
"The credibility of the regime and the government is doubted very much and it appears as if they are trying to hide something," he added.
"So, therefore, we believe that a larger political investigation, under the United Nations will help clarify the sponsors, the financiers, the organizers, and the perpetrators and those responsible for the cover-up," he said.
Laghari said that Bhutto's assassination "has polarised our country. There is complete shock and disbelief even up to the present day, including in all the four provinces in Pakistan, including the state of Azad Jammu and Kashmir [Images]."
"This was our 9/11 and we still have to come out of it," he said, and added, "It was the PPP -- the party of Bhutto that pacified the people, otherwise the reaction might have been overblown."
However, Laghari warned that "if the truth is not uncovered, the situation which is simmering right now, may be blown out of proportion."
Rehman, who was always by Bhutto's side since her return in October, and was among those who bathed the slain leader before her burial, said, "Bhutto was clear about one thing -- she knew her life was under threat -- (but) she took that risk because she believed in the principle she had fought for all her life."
"She said I am willing to put my life on the line for a principle I need to defend and that principle is the restoration of democracy in Pakistan," Rehman said.
Rehman, a former journalist who was editor of the Pakistan Herald, and an alumnus of the elite all-girl Smith College in Massachusetts and the University of Sussex, said the expectation after Bhutto's killing "among those who planned this assassination," was that the PPP "would splinter -- it would break and it would no longer be the vehicle for mass politics that it had been for so many years."
But she said, "The party foiled all such attempts and within 72 hours the party scrambled to unite. It fell back on its institutional offices -- we have offices all the way down to the municipal level in Pakistan and we are using them today. (So) We made a smooth leadership transition."
"We honored her (Bhutto's) wishes," as laid out in the late leader's will, "but chose a collegial structure by unanimous and total consent of the party," Rehman said.
She strongly defended the election of Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari as the party's co-chairman to deal with the day-to-day activities, and their 19-year-old son, Bilawal -- a student at Oxford University -- as chairman.
Rehman, argued that Zardari had "earned his spurs by putting in something like 11 years in prison -- most of it in solitary confinement in Pakistan -- without cutting a deal or running out on a Lear jet standing outside to take him to more salubrious climes. I won't say who has done that in Pakistan, but people have been known to do that. He did make us proud by not cutting such a deal."
She also fended off questions and criticism from the audience that for all the talk of democracy, Bilawal's appointment was yet another manifestation of dynastic politics, saying that the party decided to elect him "in recognition of the sacrifices the Bhutto family has made for the party, for the revival of democracy."
Rehman said it was also "a honour for us to continue to be associated with this family. It's not about dynastic politics. It's about recognising what has family has stood for and the price they have paid."
She said that the "young Bhutto could have said I don't want this mantle, I don't want this bloody chair, but he rose to the occasion and stepped up to the plate."
Rehman also enumerated a laundry list of complaints about what she said was "the unfortunate trend that exists today to rig and manipulate this election."
"What we see right now unfortunately is a concerted bid to steal that mandate from democratic forces, particularly the PPP. The reason the election was delayed by the government is also widely seen as a ploy to further manipulate the election," she said.
Rehman alleged that "it is unfortunate that 90 per cent of the equipment that the United States of America has given the government of Pakistan to fight terrorism and much of the aid is also being used to monitor and keep check on their political opponents, particularly the PPP."
"Unless, the international community forcefully engages the government of Pakistan against rigged elections, the regime will go ahead with rigging the polls, if indeed they hold them at all," she predicted.
"There is a question mark hanging about the intention of this regime to hold this poll on time or keep indefinitely delaying it -- indefinite delay is a tried and tested method in South Asia for just not holding a poll," she said.
"So, for its own future and the stability of the region, we feel that Pakistan needs a free and fiar election," she said, and added: 'There is no question of fighting any international or domestic war on terror without that. And, as long as Pakistan is deprived of true democracy, we will see extreme elements of society continued to be empowered."
Rehman, who continued to make a strong pitch for the PPP, declared, "If the elections are not blocked, we will see a return of the PPP led by the new collegial leadership."