Last week’s court judgment in the decade-old murder trial of Pakistan’s twice-elected former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto – who was killed in Rawalpindi after addressing a public meeting in the city’s Liaqat Bagh park on December 27, 2007 – leaves many unanswered questions. Not the least of these is quite a big one: who was actually responsible?
The Anti-Terrorism Court in Rawalpindi on August 31 failed to sentence anyone for Bhutto’s murder; however, it declared the country’s former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, a fugitive and ordered confiscation of his properties.
Two senior police officials, Saud Aziz, the then police chief of Rawalpindi and Khurram Shehzad, a former police superintendent, were found guilty of damaging evidence by hosing down the crime scene soon after the attack.
They were each sentenced to 17 years in prison. The court, meanwhile, acquitted five accused militants, members of the group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), for want of evidence.
After the verdict, one of Bhutto’s daughters, Aseefa, tweeted “10 years later and we still await justice. Abettors punished but those truly guilty of my mother’s murder roam free.”
Throughout its time in government, from 2008 until 2013, the Pakistan People’s Party – which Bhutto led for 25 years – tried its hardest to implicate Musharraf in the assassination.
In response to the ATC’s ruling last week, Musharraf commented: “I have not been the beneficiary of prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s murder.” In the sense that the PPP were swept to power following the murder, on a sympathy swing, he is right.
One may well ask who, apart from the PPP, did benefit. Another unanswered question is why no autopsy of Bhutto’s body was carried out, as hospital surgeons claim. They say Bhutto’s family would not allow one; the family insists there was one, but the findings have never been made public.
The ACT in Rawalpindi did not rule on which of these conflicting claims holds true; instead, police officials took the rap for the quick clean-up. Neither investigators nor the court have raised questions about who ordered the crime scene to be hosed so soon and why. Nor did the court hear statements from those accompanying Bhutto at the time of her death.
It appears neither the Pakistani state nor Bhutto’s family have shown any interest in resolving these and other questions surrounding an assassination in which two dozen others also lost their lives
There are other unknowns relating to the case. Who killed Bilal Sheikh, who was in charge of Bhutto’s security, in 2013? By then he was a senior aide to President Asif Ali Zardari. Who gunned down Bhutto’s trusted bodyguard, Khalid Shahensha, in July 2008? He is the man seen in a video clip making strange motions at the podium at Liaquat Bagh minutes before Bhutto’s murder.
It appears neither the Pakistani state nor Bhutto’s family have shown any interest in resolving these and other questions surrounding an assassination in which two dozen others also lost their lives.
Further frustrating those who have an interest in justice is the fact that the charge sheet has been phrased and rephrased several times over the intervening years, with judges coming and going through a seemingly revolving door. Proceedings relating to the case have been inconsistent and erratic.
The ATC itself seemed to acknowledge the lackluster approach of state agencies when it observed last week that “the prosecution itself was confused.”
The court rightly pointed out that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) failed to produce a key witness in Mohammad Ismail, the man who intercepted a conversation between the former head of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, and a local cleric, in which the latter is congratulated for his “mission” being successfully accomplished. The witness’s non-appearance severely weakened the case against the five TTP members.
The investigation reports in fact contain good reasons for the ISI’s lethargy, by showing that all five accused had links to the Haqqania madrassa in Akora Khattak, run by Sami ul-Haq, an influential cleric who is in close contact with the country’s military and civil establishments.
This is the same seminary to which the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf party-led government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa state granted US$3 million in a bid to “mainstream the madrassa curriculums.” The reports confirm that the suicide bomber who fired at Benazir Bhutto and later exploded himself stayed at the seminary and that the murder plot was prepared in the same place.