RAWALPINDI: After nine years and eight months – or 3,536 days to be precise – the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto remains a mystery. An anti-terrorism court on Thursday acquitted five accused for want of evidence while branding former military ruler Pervez Musharraf a fugitive.
ATC Judge Muhammad Asghar Khan found two police officers guilty of ‘mishandling the crime scene’, making them the only people to have been convicted over the assassination of Benazir in a gun and suicide attack in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007.
The judge not only declared Musharraf ‘proclaimed offender’ but also ordered confiscation of his property. Musharraf is alleged to have been part of a broad conspiracy to have his political rival killed before elections. He has denied the allegation.
In 2013, Musharraf was charged with murder, criminal conspiracy for murder, and facilitation for murder. But he has been in self-imposed exile in Dubai ever since a travel ban was lifted three years later.
After nearly a decade-long trial, the ATC delivered a short judgment on Thursday acquitting five accused allegedly belonging to the defunct Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) while leaving the question “who was the mastermind of Benazir’s assassination” in shrouded mystery.
The ATC declared the then city police officer, Saud Aziz, and the then superintendent of police, Khurram Shahzad, as facilitators in the crime.
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The two police officers were accused of not allowing a post-mortem on Benazir’s body and hosing down the crime scene and hence destroying vital forensic evidence outside Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh where she had gone to address a public rally.
Reportedly, a UN commission which investigated Bhutto’s assassination had concluded that Saud Aziz had not allowed medics to conduct a post-mortem on Benazir’s body and later blamed her spouse Asif Ali Zardari, which shows mala fide intention on his part.
While convicting the two top cops, the ATC handed down a 10-year jail term to each of them under Section 119 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and an additional seven-year imprisonment to each under Section 201 of the PPC. The court also slapped a fine of Rs1 million on each of them. In case of nonpayment, both the accused will have to serve an additional six-month jail term.
The court ordered the arrest of Saud and Khurram, who were on bail, to serve out their imprisonment. The sentences shall run concurrently, the order reads, and the accused have been extended benefit of Section 382-B of the Criminal Procedure Code.
The suspected TTP members – Hasnain Gul, Rafaqat Hussain, Rasheed Ahmed, Aitzaz Shah and Sher Zaman who had pleaded not guilty yet spent years in jail – were acquitted of all charges by the ATC.
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They were set to walk free nearly 10 years after they were first arrested, though a defence lawyer said it was not yet clear when they would be released.
“My clients were held for nine years and eight months for nothing,” Malik Jawad Khalid, the lawyer for three of the men – Rafaqat Hussain, Hasnain Gul and Sher Zaman – told AFP. “This time in their lives cannot be brought back, but we thank Allah that they have been declared innocent.”
If the acquittals were challenged, “my clients will again prove themselves innocent in the higher courts”, he vowed.
Benazir’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who now heads the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), tweeted that the decision was ‘disappointing & unacceptable’, and the release of ‘terrorists’ was ‘not only unjust but dangerous’. He vowed the party would explore legal options.
“There will be no justice till Pervez Musharraf answers for his crimes!” Benazir's daughter Aseefa Zardari tweeted moments after the ATC announced the verdict.
Interestingly, during the marathon trial, seven charge-sheets had been presented and eight judges and three courts changed.
The attorneys for all the parties had concluded their arguments on Wednesday after which the judge reserved judgment in the case. Surprisingly, only a handful of PPP supporters showed up outside the ATC in Adiala jail while the party’s leadership preferred to rely on the media for the verdict.
Meanwhile, special prosecutor for the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Khawaja Imtiaz said his agency would challenge the verdict before the Rawalpindi Bench of the Lahore High Court as it was not satisfied with the acquittal of the suspected terrorists.
The unanswered questions surrounding the case prompted a swirl of conspiracy theories.
Rashid A Rizvi, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, alluded to them on Thursday when he noted that the acquittals were “as much a conspiracy as her murder was”.
The judgment, political analyst Hasan Askari told AFP, was unlikely to offer any clarity as it “has failed to answer the question of who actually murdered her”.
“Were they Taliban or Musharraf,” he said, adding that the prosecution “could not provide any evidence ... So the mystery remains unsolved”.
(With additional input from AFP)