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By Zia Ur Rehman

October 8, 2017

https://www.thenational.ae/world/asia/who-killed-former-pakistan-prime-minister-benazir-bhutto-1.665423

On a late September evening at a tea stall in Lyari, one of the poorest and until recently one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Karachi, a small group of Pakistan People’s Party members were discussing the verdict of a special Pakistani court on the murder of Benazir Bhutto.

Their former party chief and the first female prime minister of an Islamic state was killed on December 27, 2007 outside a large electoral gathering of her supporters in Rawalpindi when a gunman shot her and set off a bomb. At least 24 other people were killed and several more were injured.

After nearly ten years of repeated investigation by Pakistan’s chaotic judicial system and a distinct lack of interest from the government, on August 31 an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi declared Pervez Musharraf, the country’s former president and army chief to be a fugitive from justice in the Bhutto assassination case. The court also acquitted five suspected members of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a Pakistani terror group, of all charges of conspiring to murder Bhutto.

Seven TTP militants accused of involvement in the murder have been killed in military operations since 2007. The head of the outfit, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a drone strike in South Waziristan in August 2009.

The court also sentenced two high-ranking police officers, Khurram Shahzad and Saud Aziz, to 17 years in prison for negligence for failing to properly guard Bhutto. Shahzad hosed down the crime scene with water in less than two hours after the attack while Aziz refused repeatedly to allow a postmortem on the prime minister’s body.

“I am not satisfied with the court decree. There is no clue on who killed Bhutto. The court released all the suspected militants and only punished two police officers,” said Muhammad Ali, one of the supporters of the PPP, a Pakistani liberal political party.

“It shows that no one is serious about bringing the real killers of Bhutto to justice and the government just wants to get rid of the case.”

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Two months before Bhuttos’ killing, on October 18, 2007, at least 130 people, most of them also from Lyari neighbourhood, were killed when two bombs exploded in the crowd celebrating Bhutto’s return to Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile in Dubai and London. Mr Ali was there and was slightly injured. Bhutto was unhurt.

Most party workers, like Mr Ali – indeed, many Pakistanis – are disappointed with the court verdict, as it explains nothing.

Conspiracy theories abound: was it the TTP chief Mehsud? Was the suicide bomber a TTP member? Was it Musharraf? Was the lax security the fault of Pervez Ilahi, chief minister of Punjab at the time, or Bhutto’s own bodyguards?

Pakistanis love conspiracy theories, says Owais Tohid, an Islamabad-based journalist who interviewed Bhutto twice after her return to Pakistan. “We as people still love to believe that America must be behind 9/11 or military dictator General Ziaul Haq’s plane was blown into pieces by America’s CIA or Bin laden is still alive.”

Yet from anti-terrorism courts to Scotland Yard detectives to a United Nations fact-finding mission, no one has produced anything concrete on Bhutto’s killers.

Bhutto’s children were also disappointed. Her son Bilawal, who now leads the party after graduating from Oxord University (like his mother) called the August 31 verdict “unacceptable” on Twitter and said he would “explore legal options.” His sister Aseefa said: “10 years later and we still await justice. Abettors punished but those truly guilty of my mother’s murder roam free.”

Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s husband and former president challenged the acquittal of five TTP suspects in Lahore High Court. He also objected to the 17-year prison terms for the two police officers and questioned why a case against Musharraf was separated from the Bhutto assassination case.

Musharraf, who came to power in a nonviolent coup in 1999, was charged in 2014 with high treason. He spent some time under house arrest but left the country in 2016 on the pretext of needing medical treatment.

Sixty-eight witnesses gave evidence in the murder trial, but legal analysts say the case lacked credibility throughout.

“The Bhutto investigation seemed to be a deliberate sabotage to not allow the investigation to lead to the logical conclusion, which in my opinion led to Musharraf and his cronies,” said Saroop Ijaz, a Lahore-based lawyer and researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The anti-terrorism court’s judgment is a farce, it fails to hold anyone directly accountable and lacks legal reasoning and moral courage.”

The court found the two police officers guilty of aiding and abetting and destroying evidence but no one guilty of the actual murder. “This is without precedent and shameful. The Benazir Bhutto trial was about holding the powerful responsible [Musharraf] and closure for hundreds of millions of Pakistanis and the investigation and the court has failed on both counts,” Mr Ijaz said.

“A cataclysmic event in the country’s history appears to have ended with a whimper in court,” was the verdict of Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English newspaper.

Musharraf’s political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, also protested against the court verdict and said it would challenge it.

“Previously, it was informed that Musharraf’s case had been separated from the main case, but the decision reflected that it was given in haste, which is totally contradictory to the charges, evidences and statement in the case,” said secretary-general Dr Mohammad Amjad.

Tohid, the journalist, says the assassins were chasing Bhutto the moment she landed in Karachi.

“My people badly need me and I need them to end this terrorism and extremism. But it’s going to be a long battle,” Bhutto told Tohid after the attack at her homecoming rally.

Analysts believe her death left a political vacuum in the country and weakened her own political party. The wave of popular sympathy triggered by her assassination strengthened the PPP’s showing in the 2008 general elections. The party vowed to unravel the plot behind her death and to punish her killers. Bhutto’s widower became president after the election and the party has slumped into its worst crisis ever, with poor organisation, bad governance and, most importantly, a lack of dynamic political leadership.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan exploited that vacuum and his party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, and its aggressive campaigns against corruption, has taken the place of the PPP.

In a by-election on September 17, the PPP came fifth in a Lahore district once considered one of its strongholds, bagging a mere 1,414 votes. The winner, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz secured 61,254 votes.

No one from the PPP turned up to hear the court’s judgment on August 31 and during its time in office, from 2008 to 2013, the party did little to investigate their leader’s murder. They handed the job to the UN instead.

Not that that has stopped them using the Bhutto name when it suits them. A decade on, PPP leaders still promise to bring her murderer to justice.

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“That will probably be the slogan in the next elections as well,” Tohid said.