Demystifying death of former Pakistani President Ziaulhaq
In an exclusive interview, Ijazulhaq unveils conspiracy, exposes people behind 1988 air crash that killed his father
The crash of C-130 plane near the Pakistani city of Bahawalpur, 531 kilometers (330 miles) south of Pakistani capital Islamabad on Aug. 17, 1988, killing country’s President and Army Chief Gen. Muhammad Ziaulhaq continues to remain shrouded in mystery. The crash also killed U.S. Ambassador Arnold Lewis Raphel and several other top Pakistani military officials.
Over the past three decades, many people speculated about the sabotage, believing that explosives were hidden in a crate of mangoes loaded on the plane in Bahawalpur. But the Pakistani and the U.S. authorities have repeatedly denied and described the crash an accident.
Now, 32-years later Muhammad Ijazulhaq, former Pakistani federal minister and son of Ziaulhaq claims that he has gathered evidence concluding that the plane came down due to spraying of nerve gas in the cockpit that maimed pilots. He also confirmed the presence of explosives in the mango crates, besides claiming that a projectile had also hit the plane.
In an exclusive interview with the Anadolu Agency in his office in Rawalpindi, Ijazulhaq, who is writing a book on the subject said that conspirators did not want to leave anything to chance.
He claimed that the role of former Army Chief Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, former National Security Advisor Gen. Mahmood Ali Durrani draws suspicion. He said that based on the evidence, that he has collected Indian and Israeli spy agencies were also involved in the killing of his father.
Anadolu Agency: How you describe your father, former President and Army Chief of Pakistan Gen. Muhammad Ziaulhaq, as a family man?
Muhammad Ijazulhaq (MI): My father Gen. Muhammad Ziaulhaq is known by people for his humility, his overly kind and generous disposition. He was a very friendly father also, more of a brother than a father. I regret that I was unable to spend as much time I wanted to be with him. I remained abroad to study and then working in London, Dublin, and Bahrain. We used to talk every day or at least three to four times a week on the telephone. But I was not able to spend the time which my other brothers and sisters spent with him.
Q: When was the last time you met him?
MI: I met him last on May 29, 1988, that is three months before his tragic death. I was in Canada with my family when I heard the news. It was shocking.
Q: You must have followed the case. How this plane got crashed? Was it an accident or something else?
MI: When the crash took place, we tried to vigorously pursue the case as much as we could. But the coverup was so strong and shrouded both from within and outside the country that we were unable to get to the webbed nitty-gritty. One thing was clear, that after the U.S.- Pakistan Air Force joint investigation, the Americans right from the beginning, tried their level best to prove that it was a mere accident.
Some 34-35 pages of that report were released. Pakistan President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who took office after my father, announced in those days and that report confirmed that it was not an accident but sabotage. So, then we started looking into it.
A team member of Pakistan air force investigating this case, was a very senior investigator in the air force - commodore at that time, which is equal to a brigadier in the army.
He initiated some inquiries. He is dead now. His name was Air Commodore Zaheer Zaidi. He took parts of the plane without telling anybody to the top laboratory in Pakistan. His relative was the chairman at that time over there. So quietly, he got the chemical analysis done of the debris and contents like mango peels and other parts whatever he could get. His report established that it was a criminal act. A lot of antimony phosphorus etc. and other such things were found, which means that there was something wrong and some sabotage was done.
Then we also came to know that there was not only an explosion. According to Zaidi, several acts were in place to ensure that if one fails, others will work. So, there was nerve gas which was kept in the cockpit of the plane which is so strong that it paralyzes the pilots. One of the theories which came to our knowledge was that it was the reason why the plane went up and down before hitting the ground as the pilots were paralyzed. They could not control. They were shaking. It is like when you slaughter an animal, and he tries to do some actions like that. It is said that the gas was kept in one of the trophies which were given to my father. They took it and kept it in the cockpit.
Q: Who had given these trophies?
MI: Some officers over there, who were part and in charge of the function. Zaidi appeared and recorded statement before one of the judicial commissions, namely the Shafiqur Rehman Commission. But the report of that commission has never been released. There were three commissions formed by the Pakistan government. The first one was the Bandial Commission which was formed by the then People’s Party government when Benazir Bhutto became the prime minister. They were never interested in finding out the truth.
Q: Why they were not interested to get to the truth. After all, the president of the country had died. Was it an act of political revenge?
MI: I think it was partly because of political revenge, partly because there was a pressure on them also.
Q: Do you mean there was a kind of collaboration between the domestic and external actors?
MI: There was a collaboration. Many actors involved were doing their bid, without knowing what the other person is doing, and even without cooperating among themselves. My father never wanted to attend this function because as army chief and also as president of the country, he was not supposed to attend. Any subordinate general from the army headquarters or the chief of general staff or maybe the chief of training could have gone there. Why the president? He was convinced to go by one of the senior officers who used to be close to him, requesting him again and again. He called our home 16 times according to the register which we had in the Army House. He was requesting my father to come and attend the function and play golf together. He repeatedly requested him to come and stay with him at Multan as his guest.
Q: Who was he?
MI: He was Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani. He was a military attache in the Pakistani mission in Washington when he was a brigadier. And then he became the military secretary to my father for nearly two to three years before he went to command an armored division in Multan. Since this exercise was all under the Multan division, he was there in charge. There were many cover-ups. One was that postmortems of the bodies were stopped by an order from the high-up.
Q: You mean that no autopsy was done?
MI: Yes, no postmortem. The parts of the bodies were supposed to go to a laboratory in Lahore, which could do the analysis. But at the last moment, they were told not to do so. The only autopsy was done on the body of Brig. Gen. Robert Wossom who was the military attache in the U.S Mission, and died in the same plane. His postmortem was done because his body was supposed to return to the U.S.
A military hospital in Multan had prepared to conduct autopsies of all 29 people, who died in the crash. But they were told not to go ahead. And the orders came right from the top. And then later on those officers and doctors working in that hospital were transferred to far-flung areas in Pakistan. Zaidi, who wrote a 100-page report was harassed. He later died.
Q: Was it a normal death?
MI: He died a normal death. But he was like, chased and threatened. I will not say which agency it was, but he used to tell us. He was a professional and a top investigator in Pakistan. He was thrown out of the air force and then not allowed to do any job, till one of his colleagues became head of the civil aviation authority in Pakistan. He hired him as an investigator for some time. Other than that, he lived a very miserable life.
He gave me a 100 paged document written in his hand, which is with me. He gave me some other things also that he had on his desk. He had kept some of the reports outside Pakistan. He told those people with whom he had kept documents to release them if something happens to him. He did not give those documents to us. But the 100-page report, which he had prepared is with me and Inshallah I will publish it in my forthcoming book. Also, another very important aspect is that we had decided to sue Lockheed, a company that manufactures the C 130 aircraft that crashed.
Q: That plane has four engines, in case of failure of three engines, one engine could still work, right?
MI: Even in case of failure of all its four engines, it has the gliding capability. It will not crash. It is a very strong plane. When you open the back, you can take the tanks into it. So, we decided to prosecute this company for a billion dollars, because of their claim that it was a technical fault. We wanted to prove that it was not a technical fault. If it was a technical fault, then they need to pay us the money. We wanted them to say that it was not a technical fault, but sabotage.
So, we hired a prominent New York-based lawyer a U.S citizen. He was very excited, initially. And he exclaimed that he has got the case of the century. He even went to the extent of allowing us to hold a press conference at his expense. And a few days after the announcement and his excitement that he has got the case of the century, his spirits dampened.
When I met him, he said, that the head of the civil aviation authority of the U.S. had invited him for lunch. And soon after that, he never contacted us and did not take our calls even.
Similarly, we also took on board Robin Raphel, wife of the deceased U.S. Ambassador Arnold Lewis Raphel. She also did not contact us later. She never spoke about this. The U.S. wanted to compensate her by making her an ambassador. Also, one more thing that I have mentioned and nobody has refuted it so far is that there was an air force officer held in Pakistan for espionage charges. His name was Akram Awan. He was jailed for a long time and then released. But let me tell you the brief story about Awan. He was arrested for espionage in May 1988. The accident took place in August after three months.
He was in contact with the RAW [Indian intelligence agency] and Mossad [the national intelligence agency of Israel].
I hope you have heard the story that the Israelis in 1986, had tried to bomb Kahuta [a town near Islamabad, where Kahuta Research Laboratories, a nuclear research Lab, is located]. They could not execute the mission. But it was planned. The planning was in such an advanced stage that when Pakistan came to know, our fighters were in the air for 24 hours CAP (constant air patrolling). He was the one who was going to fly with the Israelis on the plane and to direct them to Kahuta.
Q; Was he supposed to fly in the same plane?
MI: Of course, in the two-seater Israeli bomber, which was supposed to refuel in India, and from there, it was going to come and hit Pakistan, as they did to USS Liberty in 1967 in international waters north of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. They also used camouflage planes; you know.
Awan was arrested and was kept in one of the safe houses without any access to the outside world. Three army officers, a brigadier, a colonel and a major were interrogating him. He did not have any access to the media or the external world. Some 10 days after the crash, they brought him to another room played a video of the burial of my father and the news about the crash. One Major Gen M.H. Awan had also died in this crash. He started crying loudly because the late Gen. Awan was his adoptive father, who had paid for his schooling and upbringing.
He was crying and saying he did not know that they were going to use this for this purpose. And what was that? So, during interrogation, he revealed that he had brought the nerve gas. According to his confession, there were two other officers, one from Mossad who was using the U.S. passport and another one from the Indian intelligence agency. He gave this statement under oath to a Magistrate under section 164 of the Pakistan Criminal Procedure Code. These three officers interrogating him obviously must have told their head of the department, who in turn conveyed to the army chief. One of them was called by the army chief, which I learned later.
Q: Do you mean that Army Chief Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg was doing cover-up?
MI: According to the story, which I later heard that Army Chief Beg told that officer that it is a very sensitive matter and there is a lot of pressure and they want to get to the bottom of it. So, they do not want things to be announced all of a sudden. He took the original copy of Awan’s interrogation report and his statement on oath and kept it in his drawer. And these officers were then transferred out of the intelligence service. I had met two of them. I also asked Beg that I want a clarification. He never gave. These people are still alive. So, this is how the conspiracy was managed. Later on, we put pressure on Nawaz Sharif. He formed the Shujat Commission. Then another commission was formed under late Justice Shafiqur Rehman.
This commission was tasked to interview everybody and conclude investigations. The report was never published. One of the three judges of that commission (before he died), gave me a copy of the report which I have kept somewhere. He said during investigations, they had sent a message to air force that they will inspect parts of the plane picked up from Bahawalpur, kept at a hangar in Multan. Zaidi had shown them the picture that besides the explosion and the nerve gas, some solid thing had also hit the plane from outside as well. The air force asked them [members of the commission] to come after 48 hours. So, according to that judge when they went to Multan, there was nothing. No parts of the wreckage of the plane were there. And it was like the entire elephant had disappeared. And later on, we learned that they probably had sold it as “scrap” or whatever.
Q: Question remains who and why Gen. Ziaulhaq was killed?
MI: When we were pursuing the theory of nerve gas, some people called us that this was taken somewhere from Spain. So, we sent somebody over there. And every time we used to go to this senior officer because he worked very closely with Gen. Akhtar Abdur Rehman Khan. He was heading the Southeast Asia desk of ISI and particularly at one time, was the head of the entire area. He invited my brother as well as the son of Gen. Khan. Both of them told the officer to pursue the nerve gas aspect. The last word of warning was that “do not pursue this case if you are to stay in politics”.
Q: Who said this?
MI: The intelligence station chief in the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. He told my brother to convey to me if I want to pursue a political career, then we should not follow this case. More importantly, according to the blue book of the FBI, they must take up the case of the death of any U.S. citizen anywhere in the world within 48 hours. The FBI has to go and investigate within 72 hours. This is a rule. Here their envoy had died and they were not allowed to visit for 10 months. And when they came, they were hardly interested in the investigation. They rather indulged in sightseeing.
They went to Taxila, Murree everywhere. When they met us, we gave them 25 names and told them to please ask questions to them. We exchanged harsh words because they said that we are not trusting them. I said, yes, I am not trusting you. First of all, you were supposed to be here within 72 hours. Now after 10 months, you are coming.
Q: In your assessment, why such things happened?
MI: Very simple. The Afghanistan war was over. The Soviet Union was into pieces. Central Asian countries were emerging out to become a very big block. Gen. Zia was extremely close to Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad of Bangladesh. And nobody tolerated that, be that India of the U.S.
Even many countries do not tolerate our relation with Turkey. I remember when I was going to address my first press conference, as we wanted to thank the people of Pakistan for attending the funeral and for giving so much love and affection. The whole day along, the intelligence agencies spent time with my mother telling her to convey to us not to announce anything. They wanted us to stay in the background.
Q: Did you find any link between the killing of Gen. Ziaulhaq and Pakistan’s nuclear program?
MI: Partly yes. If you have heard my father’s interview with an American journalist who offered him that if you sign the NPT, they will give all the energy that Pakistan wants. My father told him, John, nothing can compensate for the price of freedom.
He played a masterstroke in Afghanistan, played very well with the U.S., got a waiver from them and advanced the nuclear program which earlier was a smaller laboratory at the Chaklala Air Base. In 1983 Abdul Qadeer Khan told my father that Pakistan’s nuclear program was ready for the cold test.
In 1986, my father went to India and conveyed to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who had moved his forces on our border.
Q: What exactly had Gen. Zia told Rajiv Gandhi, we have heard that he threatened him with a nuclear attack?
MI: The advisor of Rajiv Gandhi has written all this in detail in his book and it is part of history. Raja Zafrul Haq, who was an information minister and was accompanying my father to India, has also narrated the same story. My father was told by the intelligence agencies that India's quarter-million soldiers had moved on the border and they were preparing to attack Pakistan any moment. It could happen within 48 hours or in 72 hours. So, he prompted Rajiv Gandhi to afford him to have an opportunity to witness the Pakistan – India cricket test match in the Indian city of Jaipur.
The Indian Prime Minister was initially not prepared to receive Pakistani President at the airport but had to be convinced by his associates to do so.
Before departure my father, while saying goodbye to Gandhi said, ‘Mr. Rajiv, you want to attack Pakistan, do it. But keep in mind that this world will forget Halaku Khan and Changez Khan and will remember only Ziaulhaq and Rajiv Gandhi because this will not be a conventional war but a nuclear war. In this situation, Pakistan might be destroyed, but Muslims will still be there in the world; but with the destruction of India, Hinduism will vanish from the face of this earth.’
Raja Zafurul Haq said that we were all scared. That there is a crazy man, going to India in such a tense situation when they are preparing an attack and he is watching a cricket match and then simultaneously delivering a threat. But when my father came up to the aircraft, he was relaxed and laughing as usual.He told Raja, do not worry, everything will be okay.
Q: Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf [Afghan leader] once told me that Zia had confided to him that the U.S. wanted to kill him and that is the reason, he was taking U.S. ambassador with him everywhere. How far is this correct? Did you hear something like this from him?
MI: Not really. I mean, he was not taking him everywhere. But he was told not to travel in those days. On Aug. 12, he had gone to Lahore for inaugurating a bridge. But this one trip to Bahawalpur, he never wanted to take. But he was forced to go there. The then Interior Minister Aslam Khattak said that they were warning him that there is a threat to his life and he should not be traveling.
Q: Is it true that Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg was also in the list of people to accompany your father?
MI: It is natural when there were so many senior officers going in the same plane, the only deputy army chief said he was not coming in this plane. So, my father asked him, when he was standing over there to see him. He said he was going to Multan or something, he said he had his plane. My father said, okay, you go ahead.
Q: This air crash is associated with mangoes. Many people have even fictionalized the incident. What is the truth of mangoes?
MI: Mango theory is true. There was an explosion in the mango crate. The conspirators had used gas to maim pilots, explosives in the mango crates and a projectile that hit the plane from outside.
Q: What sort of pressures you faced?
MI: As I told you, I faced pressures not to pursue the case. I was told, if you want to pursue your career in politics, stay away from this case.
Q: Was there any threat from the U.S.?
MI: Yes, there was an indirect threat from the U.S.
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