Pakistani court declares ex-President Musharraf absconder in Benazir Bhutto murder trial

One of the most controversial trials in Pakistani history has ended with the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf declared a fugitive and his property ordered confiscated after he failed to show in court over the assassination 10 years ago of Benazir Bhutto.

A Pakistani court in the garrison city of Rawalpindi Thursday announced verdict in the 10-year-old Benazir Bhutto murder case, declaring former military ruler Pervez Musharraf an absconder while acquitting five Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) suspects and announcing 17-year imprisonment for two police officials.

Saud Aziz, who was police chief of Rawalpindi when Bhutto was assassinated in 2007, and Khurram Shahzad, a former Superintendent of Police (SP) at Rawal Town, were each awarded 17 years in prison. The two, who were out on bail, have already been arrested.

Court has directed authorities to seize Musharraf’s properties and issue perpetual arrest warrants for the former dictator.

A joint investigation team implicated Musharraf in the case, saying that his government did not provide adequate security to the former prime minister despite her repeated requests.

Apart from Musharraf, five other men — Baitullah Mehsud, Ahmad Gul, Iqramullah, Abdullah, and Faizullah — have been declared absconders.

Former president Musharraf is alleged to have been part of a broad conspiracy to have his political rival killed before elections. He has denied the allegation.

He was charged with murder, criminal conspiracy for murder, and facilitation for murder in 2013, in an unprecedented move against an ex-army chief, challenging beliefs the military is immune from prosecution.

But he has been in self-imposed exile in Dubai ever since a travel ban was lifted three years later.

Musharraf’s government blamed the assassination on Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who denied any involvement. He was killed in a US drone attack in 2009.

Nearly 10-year long case

During the case, 68 witnesses appeared on behalf of the prosecution and recorded their testimonies. The police presented three challans before the court, wheras the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) presented five.

The judge hearing the case was changed eight times.

In 2013, FIA’s special prosecutor in the case was killed by unknown assailants. Doctors said he had been killed with 10 bullets targeting his chest and shoulder.

Bhutto’s son, Bilawal, called the verdict “disappointing and unacceptable”.

Bhutto’s daughter, Aseefa, said on Twitter, “10 years later and we still await justice. Abettors punished but those truly guilty of my mothers murder roam free.”

“The acquittal of al-Qaida/Taliban terrorists against whom evidence has been provided is most surprising and raises several questions. On its face it seems a triumph of al-Qaida militants,” Bhutto’s party, the PPP, said in a written statement.

Rashid A. Rizvi, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, alluded to a ‘conspiracy theory’ Thursday when he noted that the acquittals were “as much a conspiracy as her murder was”, report AFP.

The judgement, 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 the prosecution “could not provide any evidence … So the mystery remains unsolved”.

The former military ruler is facing a string of cases connected to his 1999-2008 rule, and Pakistani courts have ordered his property confiscated on previous occasions.

He was acquitted last year in the 2006 killing of Nawab Akber Bugti, a Baloch militant leader, but four cases remain against him: one accusing him of treason for imposing emergency rule, one alleging the unlawful dismissal of judges, one over a deadly raid on the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007, and Bhutto’s killing.

Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination

During her career, Bhutto, a two-term prime minister, was celebrated in the west as a beacon of democracy, and much feted for her glamorous reputation. People Magazine named her one of the world’s 50 most beautiful people.

Benazir Bhutto greets supporters in November 2007, a month before she was assassinated.

In the region, she was equally idolised by supporters as a champion for women’s rights, and attacked by opponents for corruption, incompetence and nepotism.

Born into an aristocratic Karachi family, Bhutto studied at both Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford. She took over the reigns of the Pakistan People’s party (PPP) in 1987, years after its founder, her father, was executed by the military dictator, Zia ul-Haq. In 1988, she became the first woman democratically elected to lead a Muslim-majority nation.

After her last term, besieged by corruption allegations, she fled the country, only to return eight years later to public celebrations.

It was during one of her public rallies, leading up to the 2008 elections, that Bhutto was first attacked by terrorists who had planted two bombs in the crowd. Bhutto survived that attack, which killed 149 people, but in another rally two months later, on 27 December in Rawalpindi, her car came under fire, before a suicide bomber detonated nearby.

Bhutto died in her car under circumstances that were later disputed. An initial investigation claimed she died from fracturing her skull on the sunroof latch in the blast. However, her party denied those claims, insisting that she died from gunshot wounds.

Prior to her death, Bhutto said a sinister cabal of intelligence officers and presidential aides were plotting to kill her, and that Musharraf should be blamed if anything were to happen to her. PPP has always maintained that line.

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