RAWALPINDI: The Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) on Thursday announced its verdict in the murder case of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto after almost ten years.
The verdict announced by ATC Judge Asghar Khan at Adiala Jail cleared five accused in the case, sentenced two former police officials and declared former president General (retd) Pervez Musharraf as an absconder.
Aitzaz Shah, Sher Zaman, Abdul Rasheed, Rafaqat Hussain and Hasnain Gul, who were indicted by the ATC in November 2008, were cleared of all charges. The five accused had been charged for killing, hatching criminal conspiracy to kill, abetting the perpetrators, using illegal explosive material and spreading terrorism on Dec 27, 2007 when 22 people, including the former premier, were killed in a gun-and-bomb attack outside Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh, when she was leaving after holding an election rally.
Saud Aziz, who was the police chief in Rawalpindi at the time of Bhutto’s assassination, and former Rawal Town SP Khurram Shahzad, were sentenced to 17 years each and ordered to pay a fine of Rs0.5 million each.
The two former police officials had earlier been granted bail and were present in court at the time of the verdict being announced. According to the verdict, the former policemen had been awarded 10 years in prison under Section 119 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and seven years under Section 201 of the PPC.
The verdict also declared Musharraf an absconder in the case, ordering the seizure of his property.
The statements of 67 witnesses out of 141 were recorded during the course of proceedings, while the rest were termed unimportant.
Special Prosecutor Federal Investigation Agency Khawaja Mohammad Imtiaz spoke to media after the verdict. He said that two to three concrete reasons for sheer concern were there, first of all there was a security lapse and the crime scene was washed only hours after the incident.
Imtiaz said that the crime scene was washed after merely an hour in order to wipe out evidence and the area wasn’t cordoned off as per the standard procedure worldwide.
He said that after filing of a case, the body is always sent for post-mortem, but former Rawalpindi CPO Saud Aziz acted as a facilitator to the perpetrators of the attack by denying the post-mortem and keeping the body in custody for seven hours.
Three shots fired with the intention to kill and a blast afterwards merit an FIR registration and post-mortem, he said.
Special Prosecutor FIA said that he would consult the higher ups following the verdict and present recommendations for further measures.
More than 300 hearings have been held of the case, while over the course of time six judges have been changed and seven challans submitted in the trial that began on February 29, 2008.
The court had reserved its verdict on Wednesday after the counsels of the suspects completed their arguments.
Bhutto, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chief and two-time former prime minister, was assassinated in a suicide attack at an election campaign rally in Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh on December 27, 2007.
An FIR over the incident was registered on behalf of the state following which the murder trial of five suspects began in February of 2008. However, once PPP won the 2008 elections, the investigation was handed over to the FIA.
During Wednesday’s hearing, FIA public prosecutor Chaudhry Azhar said then PPP leader Babar Awan was in Bhutto’s backup vehicle, which was under the control of party leader Farhatullah Babar. He added that when the investigation was handed over to the FIA, the vehicle was recovered from Zardari House, Islamabad.
He said then president Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s appearance before the court was excused as he had threats against his life from Al Qaeda.
On Tuesday, suspects Hussain Gul and Rafaqat’s legal counsel Jawad Khalid told the court the statements received from his clients hold Musharraf, among others, responsible for the crime.
He also claimed that there is no solid proof against his clients. There is a conflict between investigating officers’ statements and the weapons recovered from the scene of the crime, he added.
“This raises suspicion,” he remarked, adding that the court should show mercy towards the innocent.
“The real culprits are not being punished for the crime,” the counsel claimed.
FIA prosecutor Khawaja Asif accepted that there is no record of the suspects in the DNA report.
The truth is that Bhutto was targeted for deviating from US policy, said Khalid, adding that there were no explosives in the suicide jacket that the suspects had submitted for DNA testing. Moreover, the suspect’s DNA report has not been submitted to the court.
On the other hand, the lawyer of Aziz and Shehzad said that nobody can stop a suicide attacker but it can be investigated who facilitated the attacker.
The statements of those injured in the attack have yet to be recorded and the post mortem of the bodies was not done, the lawyer pointed out.
From the three SIMs which were seized, two were not registered in any citizen’s name while the third SIM’s ownership was not investigated, the court was informed.
Former president Pervez Musharraf was also a suspect in the case, who remained absconding since the beginning. A separate case was filed against his continuous absence, the trial for which is yet to begin.
‘Disappointing and unacceptable’
PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari called the decision disappointing and unacceptable, adding that the release of terrorists was not only unjust but also dangerous. According to Bilawal, the PPP would explore legal options in the case