Uncovering the mystery Shahnawaz Bhutto’s murder

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By Rehman Malik

IT was mid-afternoon while I was sitting in my office as Director FIA/Immigration and Anti-Smuggling, Islamabad and I received a call from Major General Naseerullah Khan Babar (Retired), the then Minister for Interior, who asked me to visit his residence at 06:00 pm. Upon reaching there, I was told that Prime Minister Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto wanted to see me in connection with some important case.

I met the Prime Minister at her office in the presence of Maj Gen Babar (R) when she asked me to investigate the mystery of the death of her brother Shahnawaz, who died in Cannes in France because the French authorities, when requested, hardly shared any details of his death. We are still unaware of the facts of the case.

She emotionally recalled the final moments, when Shahnawaz Bhutto was with his wife in the early evening on the day before he was found dead. They had a long chat after coming from a picnic on the seaside. She further narrated that Shahnawaz was happily preparing barbeque on the beach in the afternoon and the whole family enjoyed being together after a very long time. He looked very happy and in his usual smiling way said goodbye with the promise to come in the morning to me as we had decided to go for a walk the next morning. She could not reconcile with the proposition that such a jolly and brave young man like him could commit suicide to finish himself.

She asked me to get her the details as she wanted to know the facts and the cause of his death and accordingly, she asked me to proceed immediately to Cannes.

On my way to Cannes, I preferred to travel through Marseilles—the last city of residence of Shahnawaz Bhutto. I wanted to meet my sources for further information relating to the murder of Shahnawaz Bhutto, who was in the same area about 11 years ago. He indeed was very helpful in this matter. Along with my team members, I reached Nice in the night where I met the then Investigating Officer Inspector Decloitt, who was at that time posted in Nice. He narrated the details of the investigation and the circumstances under which the wife of Shahnawaz Bhutto, Ms. Rehana Shahnawaz, one of the daughters of Mr Fasihuddin, a senior officer of Afghan Foreign Office, was released and later flew out of France in a hurry and she was fully facilitated by the local authorities despite knowing fully well that she was the prime suspect in this high-profile murder case. Her elder sister Fauzia was married to Murtaza Bhutto, the elder brother of Shahnawaz Bhutto. After knowing about the alleged involvement of her sister in Shahnawaz’s murder, Murtaza Bhutto divorced his wife Fauzia.

Shahnawaz Bhutto

It was a very complicated case as apparently, the French authorities had closed this matter after her departure to the US whereas three deputed magistrates on this case at different times were unable to proceed in this matter—the magistrates in French judicial system are highly educated and are public servants though those maintain a high degree of impartiality and independence from political or any other influence—were transferred on their request. Their transfer requests made the matter more mysterious for me and I grabbed this as a lead for the investigation to get to the facts and secrets which forced these judicial magistrates to opt for transfer rather than being part of the trial. This lead provided us with enough information to work in the right direction and led us to the facts which unfolded more aspects of the case when we examined the available police record and visited the crime scene. The crime scene was his small apartment in Cannes, a resort town on the French Riviera, which is famed for its international film festival.

The apartment was on the hill with a beautiful scene of the sea on the front. It was surprising to see that he was living in a very simple small flat with his wife and daughter, Sassi Bhutto. He used to love his daughter a lot. Shahnawaz Bhutto entered his flat on July 17, 1985 happily but was found dead in that flat on the very next day, where his wife Rehana was also present at the time of death. She, while not calling for any emergency service to save his life, also informed the family of his death on the next day. It was another lead to suspect her, besides being an eye-witness, as privy to the murder of her husband. Undoubtedly, Shahnawaz Bhutto died under mysterious circumstances and the Benazir Bhutto family believed that he was murdered. No one was brought to trial for murder, but Shahnawaz’s wife Rehana was considered as a prime suspect by the French authorities who remained in their custody for some time with substantive leads against her. She was allowed to leave for the US while she was still under trial/investigation against the wish of the investigators. I was told in guarded words that the French authorities were left with no choice except to allow her to leave the country on the request of the US authorities.

Bhutto family historical picture (from left Shahnawaz Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Murtaza Bhutto, Sanam Bhutto, Nusrat Bhutto and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto

We all know that the French law is governed under a foolproof criminal justice system and how could a suspect leave for the USA during the trial? According to our confirmation, this case was still pending on trial hence Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was right to conclude that it was a mysterious murder where there was no trial.

The then French Investigating Officer was fully in agreement with my conclusion of suspicion of murder with the wife as the prime suspect, and he was also not fully convinced on the grounds on why she was allowed to leave the country as the prime suspect. Moreover, the French police charged her only for not helping her dying husband and wanted to proceed further as to why she did this criminal act but the investigation could not proceed further as she got away with the aid of the powerful. It is believed that she allowed her husband to die as she knew that the poison would act fast and he subsequently would be declared dead as a result of a fatal heart attack as per the proven symptoms of this lethal poison.

The police demonstrated the poison by giving it to a cat and it died with the same symptoms as reported in the medical reports. We then discovered that the investigation conducted by the French police had recovered an empty vial of poison, which was, according to experts of toxicology, only produced in Israel and the US in very low quantities, not more than 1 kilogram by these two countries, although it was not elaborated in the investigation report but explained verbally. However, our inquiries revealed that it was only used to eliminate important targets. It is believed that both the brothers managed to get this from Syria during their stay. Another official, when taken into confidence, explained that both the brothers Murtaza Bhutto and Shahnawaz used to keep vials of poison, for their own use in case of capture by Pakistani authorities, which they had obtained from Syria. It was their mutual decision that they would never allow themselves to be arrested by Zia’s secret agents. It was a big lead for us to follow. It was also confirmed by the police that the vials were kept in a briefcase in a small bottle and only his wife Rehana knew about it. It was on the police record that Shahnawaz Bhutto had asked for her help, but she chose to let him die and did not call for any emergency services. The police officer further informed us that there were intelligence reports of Rehana repeatedly meeting a CIA agent in Cannes and we managed to get pictorial evidence, which is now in the case file of FIA.

Beyond this, what we found was shocking; that a war poison vial was mixed secretly in a drink in the kitchen and it was mixed before serving it to Shahnawaz Bhutto as the empty bottle of the drink was found in the kitchen whereas the empty vial was found in the kitchen dustbin. It was quite surprising that the poison produced in Israel eventually landed in the hands of its arch-rival, the then Syrian President Hafiz Al-Assad. No one associated with the investigation could answer the question as to how the Syrian authorities could get hold of that poison but there were some indications that it was passed on via Lebanon to Syria. After returning from France, I contacted Col Riaz, who gave me multiple clues including the background of the two sisters and how they were planted on both the brothers. He further narrated that their father spent a major period of time as an officer of Afghan Foreign Service in the US and was on the payroll of the CIA.

According to Raja Anwar, an author, journalist and former advisor in the ZA Bhutto regime (1971-77), the Al Zulfiqar Organization (AZO) was formed by Bhutto’s sons, Murtaza and Shahnawaz, in 1979. Anwar joined the outfit in 1980. In his 1997 book on the AZO, Anwar wrote that being young, the two brothers decided to instigate a revolutionary movement against Gen Zia’s dictatorship, which had sent their father to the gallows in 1979 through a controversial trial. The execution of Capt. Tariq Rahim by hijackers, considering him to be the son of Gen. Rehimuddin Khan, forced the Zia-ul-Haq regime to accept the demands of the hijackers, releasing dozens of Pakistan People’s Party and other leftist political prisoners languishing in Pakistani jails. This was the time when Benazir Bhutto was also imprisoned in Karachi and she straightaway condemned this hijacking from jail. I could see why she condemned it as she never endorsed AZO and always opposed it and she could foresee it as a conspiracy designed to undermine PPP. She as a true leader had rightly predicted it. An inside investigation later revealed that Mr Tipu was used for the execution of this engineered hijacking plan without the knowledge of both Bhutto brothers.

I prepared a detailed and lengthy investigation report which was personally handed over to the Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto with Begum Bhutto present alongside the then Interior Minister. Begum Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto kept weeping during my briefing and it was a very painful sight indeed. PM Benazir Bhutto endorsed the report and appreciated the investigation at depth by unearthing the facts.

We are still unaware of the facts of the case.

(The writer is former Interior Minister of Pakistan, Chairman Senate Standing Committee on Interior and Chairman of Think Tank “Global Eye”. He is the author of four books and his fifth book is about to get published. He can be reached at: rmalik1212@gmail.com, Twitter 

@Senrehmanmalik)