Slain minorities affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti was using his official residence as a smokescreen and actually lived in a rented house with his family in Sector I-8/3, where he was gunned down in an ambush on Wednesday, The Express Tribune has learnt.
Yousuf Nishan, Bhatti’s brother-in-law, confirmed that the minister was living with his mother and the family in the ground portion of the rented house.
“The impression that he was keeping his office as his residence in Sector I-8/4 was created deliberately,” said Nishan. “Even the security escort of the minister was unaware that he used to slip from the backdoor into a private car for his actual residence in I-8/3 with his mother and return the same way in the morning.”
This showed that he was keeping his actual address secret, as “he did not even trust his own security guards, particularly after the killing of Salmaan Taseer,” said Bhatti’s brother-in-law.
A senior police official confirmed Nishan’s claims.
The news that the minister was concealing his true address and that his assassins found it anyway raised the question of how they found out.
Nishan said that Gul Sher, the minister’s trusted driver, was the only person outside the family to know of his “secret routine”. But the police do not consider him a prime suspect.
“Gul Sher was with him for over ten years. The minister’s family has not raised suspicions over his character so far and no other evidence suggests his involvement. However, he is being investigated,” said Senior Superintendent of Police (Operations) Tahir Alam.
Sources said the minister’s driver had given the police four different statements, each contradicting the other, during his initial interrogation.
The SSP conceded that it was strange the assailants did not eliminate Gul, leaving evidence against them behind. The police prepared a sketch of one of the shooters with the help of a description given by the driver.
Bhatti appeared to have expected an attack. “Two days before his death, he had gathered the entire family at his residence and told them that the militants could get him anytime,” said a family member of the minister who did not want to be named.
On Thursday, security agencies collected details of people living in the vicinity of the minister’s residence in I-8/3. “People living in the same neighbourhood may have provided information on the minister’s movement,” said one official involved in the collection.
Police officials said the call record of the minister’s personal cell phone was being screened for possible clues. Fifteen people, including a cleric of a local mosque, were picked up for interrogation, said a police official, but he added that no “fruitful” information had been extracted from them yet.
A police team was also looking into the pamphlets found at the crime scene showing claims of responsibility for the killing reportedly by Tehreek-i-Taliban Punjab (TTP). “It could be an attempt to throw off the investigators,” said SSP Alam.
Another police official close to the investigation said the style the pamphlets were written in and the way they were distributed did not match the TTP’s style.
Earlier, DIG Bani Amin said important clues had been found.
Investigators suspected the assailants had used cabs to conduct a reconnaissance of Bhatti’s movement, his routine and exit routes for the attackers. Some vendors and cab drivers found frequently in the area were also picked up and interrogated by the police.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 4th, 2011.