IT is indeed a shocking court judgement. Almost 10 years after her assassination, Benazir Bhutto’s murderers have not been identified let alone convicted. While the anti-terrorist court has acquitted the five main accused for lack of evidence, two police officers charged with negligence have been convicted.
So the mystery surrounding the murder of the twice-elected prime minister and one of Pakistan’s most charismatic and popular leaders remains unresolved. Or is this really so? Last week’s ruling of the single-judge court has raised many questions about the dubious way in which the investigation and the trial in the high-profile murder case were conducted.
Indeed, the non-serious approach was evident by the fact that the charge sheet was altered many times and a number of judges were changed over the past eight years. More importantly, how did the prosecution fail to establish charges against the five detained suspects despite claims by the investigators of having collected “irrefutable evidence” against them? They had also reportedly confessed to their involvement in the murder plot.
The ruling is inexplicable but not surprising given the callous way in which the case was handled by successive governments. Besides forming several joint investigation committees, the help of Scotland Yard and even the United Nations was acquired. But all that seems to have failed to bring the culprits to justice. Surely, political gamesmanship made the investigations more intricate.
It was apparent that the case became a tool for settling political scores with the result that investigations conducted by various agencies were thrown into the bin. In his ruling, the judge declared that the prosecution appeared confused. In fact, the case was doomed from the very outset with the frequent change of judges and prosecutors. One of the prosecutors was also killed in mysterious circumstances.
Also the judgement gives credence to the suspicion that there is neither will nor capacity to prosecute the terrorists who have gotten away with murder. There has also been debate on whether the judge was fearful of convicting the suspects allegedly associated with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and Al Qaeda. The TTP had demanded their release in the past.
Interestingly, the state prosecutors themselves refuted the investigation reports that had implicated the militant group and its top leaders including Baitullah Mehsud who was later killed in an American drone strike. The formation of various joint investigation committees and the involvement of the UN in the probe added to the problem. It was a purely political move by the PPP government to involve the international organisation in an investigation that was strictly a domestic affair, ignoring the advice of the foreign ministry. Moreover the mandate of the commission was also kept limited.
The UN commission report that had raised some questions about the role of the military intelligence agencies in prematurely washing down the site of the assassination thus destroying some key evidence was later criticised by the Pakistani authorities. The Musharraf government was also accused by the UN investigators of not providing the former prime minister enough security despite a threat to her life. In fact, the government demanded that the UN remove part of the report. This muddle completely destroyed the case.
Almost all the investigation reports had established what they described as irrefutable evidence that linked the suicide bombers and other suspects to the madressah Haqqania, Akora Khattak. The assassination plot was reportedly hatched at this institution where the suicide bombers had resided.
One of the largest and most influential seminaries in the country, Haqqania has long been seen as a hub of both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Despite its known association with militancy, the seminary led by Maulana Samiul Haq has benefited from the patronage of successive governments. The PTI government in Khyber Pakhunkhawa provided the seminary, also known as ‘university of jihad’, a generous grant of Rs300 million.
It was indeed a well-organised plot. The five boys/men who were arrested weeks after the incident, some of them in their teens, had allegedly received ideological as well as military training at the militant camps in Waziristan. They may not have been the masterminds but they appeared to be critical cogs in the murder plan.
Forensic reports and phone calls had reportedly established their involvement in the murder. But the prosecutors kept changing their line of argument during more than 300 hearings. Perhaps the most damaging stance taken by the prosecutors was that Baitullah Mehsud was implicated by the Musharraf government to divert the investigations away from the possible involvement of the intelligence agencies in the murder.
Surely, the prosecution had not been solely responsible for the shift. In fact, this position reflected the thinking of the PPP leadership that was in power over five years during the critical period of the trial. The same line of argument was pursued till the end thus weakening the case against the five militant suspects.
Musharraf’s name was added in the list of the accused, but no substantive evidence could be produced to implicate the former military ruler. While the court has ordered the confiscation of Musharraf’s properties for absconding, his case has been separated.
Indeed, the most shocking part of the ruling was the conviction and sentencing of two senior police officers on duty in Rawalpindi city on the day of the assassination. Both officers who were only accused of negligence have each been awarded 17-year jail sentences. Such harsh action for a questionable decision (they may have acted on the instructions of higher authorities) is quite mind-boggling. That leaves the main question unanswered: who killed Benazir Bhutto?
While the PPP leadership has rightly been criticised for not pursuing the case more seriously during its rule, the trial has also exposed the shortcomings of our investigation agencies, the prosecution process and the judiciary. It is not just about the PPP but the entire country losing to the terrorists one of its finest and bravest leaders. It is yet another case of high-profile political murder that may never be solved. Who is to be blamed for this tragedy?