Our hearts and thoughts are with the Pakistani people as they mourn the death of Benazir Bhutto. We extend our deep sorrow to her family and the millions of supporters who for decades have seen the Bhutto family as a source of inspiration. We also extend our condolences to the families of the other Pakistanis who were killed in this heinous crime.
We at CODEPINK were in touch with the former Prime Minister when we were writing our book Stop the Next War Now. In fact, Bhutto graciously contributed an essay that was a plea to counter extremism and "a clash of civilizations that can lead to Armageddon, where there will be no winners on earth."
Bhutto's assassination is a blow to people all over Pakistan, and the world, who hold life sacred and believe in the basics precepts of democracy. It is also a blow to women worldwide who took strength from seeing such a courageous, articulate and charismatic woman playing a leadership role in a powerful Muslim country. Inside Pakistan, even her most bitter critics wept at the news of her death, understanding that it is indeed a dark day when assassination becomes a tool for eliminating opposing viewpoints.
There is much speculation about who committed this odious act. It could certainly be religious militants opposed to a leader like Bhutto who repeatedly expressed her determination to combat violent extremists. Bhutto was perceived by many Pakistanis as too "pro-Western," especially after remarks that if elected Prime Minister, she might allow U.S. military strikes inside Pakistan to eliminate al-Qaeda.
But it is not too far-fetched to think that the assassination could have been orchestrated by Pervez Musharraf or members of the military. Many in Pakistan speculated that the government was responsible for the bomb blasts that killed 140 Pakistanis when Bhutto first returned home on October 18, citing the fact that the street lights were turned off just before the attack and questioning the lack of a serious investigation afterwards. In fact, Musharraf had refused Bhutto's request that an independent foreign team be brought in to help with the investigation. This time, there must be a serious investigation conducted by a body independent of the government and those responsible must be found and held accountable.
Elections scheduled for January 8 must be postponed. Even before this tragedy, there were no conditions for free and fair elections. The Musharraf regime had fired independent judges, censored the press and stacked the Election Commission. It is absolutely key that an independent judiciary and free press be restored, and that elections then be scheduled under the aegis of an independent electoral commission.
The international community must put pressure on Musharraf not to use this tragedy to impose another round of emergency rule like the one he imposed on November 3, which led to the crackdown on lawyers, students, journalists and other members of Pakistan's vibrant civil society. Bhutto's death will be doubly tragic if it becomes an excuse for Musharraf to stifle the very civil society that is the true bulwark against extremism.
If Bhutto's death proves anything, it is the utter failure of Musharraf's regime and the utter failure of the Bush administration's policy of supporting Musharraf. Pakistani civil society has long been calling for Musharraf to resign. Now leaders like former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have added their voice to that call, publicly holding Musharraf responsible for Bhutto's death and demanding he step down.
CODEPINK agrees that Musharraf is the biggest obstacle facing a democratic Pakistan today. He is not capable of either fighting extremists or building a society that respects the rule of law. My colleague Tighe Barry and I recently had a taste of his dictatorial ways when we were kidnapped and carjacked at gunpoint and then deported for supporting the pro-democracy movement.
The US government must use this time to radically change its policy in Pakistan. The Bush administration has been a staunch supporter of Musharraf, providing his regime with over $10 billion in financial aid since 2001. In return, Musharraf was supposed to fight religious extremists. But Osama bin Laden has never been caught, and in the last few years al-Qaeda and the Taliban have become stronger in Pakistan. In the meantime, Musharraf's use of US funds to crack down on the country's democratic forces has led to growing anti-American sentiments among the nation's moderate, secular forces. The U.S. government should withhold assistance until Musharraf steps down and a caretaker government restores the independent judiciary, lifts restrictions on the press and sets up the conditions for fair elections.
We should also begin to focus our attention on one of the key underlying causes for the growth of extremism in Pakistan: the extreme poverty that persists, especially in the tribal areas where al-Qaeda is most active.
Benazir Bhutto spoke about this in the essay she wrote for our book. Her words were poignant then, and are even more poignant upon her death:
"The neglect of rising poverty against the background of religious extremism can only complicate an already difficult world situation," she said. "The war against terrorism is primarily perceived as a war based on the use of force. However, economics has its own force, as does the desperation of families who cannot feed themselves.
"Militancy and greed cannot become the defining images of a new century that began with much hope. We must refocus our energy on promoting the values of democracy, accountability, broad-based government, and institutions that can respond to people's very real and very urgent needs."
We, as global citizens, can pay tribute to Bhutto by rising to her challenge. Whether in Pakistan or in our home countries, we can dedicate ourselves to building a world based on tolerance, cooperation and fulfilling the urgent needs of the human family--which are the pillars of a more peaceful world.