Benazir Bhutto's cause of death has been an issue of much debate. Some say perhaps she would be considered a martyr if she died by gunshot, but not if she died by hitting her head following an explosion. Others have asserted that the arguments against a death by gunshot were intended to blunt criticism that she was not adequately protected.
Initial reports based on Pakistani Interior Ministry information reported that Benazir was killed by a gunshot wound to the neck. Rehman Malik, the then security adviser for Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), suggested that the killer opened fire as she left the rally and that he hit her in the neck and chest before he detonated the explosives he was wearing.
Javed Cheema, an interior ministry spokesman, stated that her injuries were caused either by her having been shot or from pellets packed into the detonated bomb that acted as shrapnel.
On 28 December, however, the cause of Benazir's death became less clear. Pakistan's Interior Ministry announced that they now felt her death was as a result of a neck fracture sustained when she ducked or fell into her vehicle and hit the sunroof catch immediately after the gunshots, but later reported her cause of death as a skull fracture.
According to an Associated Press report, the Ministry stated "Bhutto was killed when she tried to duck back into the vehicle, and the shock waves from the blast knocked her head into a lever attached to the sunroof, fracturing her skull". The Ministry further added, in contradiction of the official hospital account, that Bhutto suffered no gunshot or shrapnel injuries and that all gunshots missed her.
PPP spokesperson Farhatullah Babar rejected claims that Bhutto's death was caused by an accident. Benazir Bhutto’s lawyer and a senior official in the party, Farooq Naik, said that the report was "baseless" and "a pack of lies". He went on to support the view that the cause of death was two bullets hitting Bhutto in the abdomen and the head. An anonymous Toyota official also rejected the notion that she could have even hit the lever based on its location in her Toyota Land Cruiser.
In statements made to Pakistan's The News, Mohammad Mussadiq Khan, one of the doctors who treated Bhutto at Rawalpindi General Hospital, described severe and depressed skull fractures, oval in overall shape, on the right side of Bhutto's head. He apparently saw no other injuries and downplayed the possibility of bullet wounds, although he had previously spoken of them. One anonymous doctor said that Pakistani authorities took Bhutto's medical records immediately after her death, and that they told doctors to stop talking.
On 31 December, Athar Minallah of the Rawalpindi General Hospital released a statement (described as "clinical notes") signed by seven persons involved in Benazir's treatment at the hospital. These persons were not pathologists and did not conduct a formal autopsy. The statement first narrates the course of treatment, from her arrival at the hospital until she was declared dead. The second part of the statement details the head wound and notes that "Detailed external examination of the body did not reveal any other external injury".
X-rays had been taken of the head wound and were interpreted in the statement. The cause of death was declared to be "Open head injury with depressed skull fracture, leading to cardiopulmonary arrest".
According to The Washington Post, the crime scene was cleared before any forensic examination could be completed and no formal autopsy was performed before burial. Doctors had asked permission to perform an autopsy, but this request was denied by the Rawalpindi chief of police. According to the BBC, Brigadier Cheema claims: "We gave you absolute facts…corroborated by the doctors' report," and that Pakistan would allow her body to be exhumed. Bhutto's husband later confirmed that he had denied a request for an autopsy to be conducted citing fears the report would be manipulated.
On 1 January 2008, Pakistan's Interior Ministry backtracked on its statement that Benazir Bhutto had died from hitting her head on the sunroof latch. Ministry spokesman, Javed Iqbal Cheema said that the ministry would wait for forensic investigations before making a conclusion on Bhutto's cause of death.
On 8 February 2008, investigators from Scotland Yard concluded that Benazir Bhutto died after hitting her head as she was tossed by the force of a suicide blast, not from an assassin’s bullet. In the report, UK Home Office pathologist Dr. Nathaniel Cary said that while a gunshot wound to her head or trunk could not be entirely excluded as a possibility, "the only tenable cause for the rapidly fatal head injury in this case is that it occurred as the result of impact due to the effects of the bomb-blast."
The findings were consistent with the Pakistani government’s explanation of Bhutto’s assassination, an account that had been greeted with disbelief by Benazir’s supporters.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2011