Court acquits five men accused in assassination

RAWALPINDI: A Pakistani anti-terrorism court official, center, announces the verdict for ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s murder trial at Adyala Prison in Rawalpindi. — AFP

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan: A Pakistan court yesterday branded former military ruler Pervez Musharraf a fugitive in ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s murder trial, but acquitted five men accused of being involved in the 2007 assassination. The verdicts are the first to be issued since Bhutto, the first female prime minister of a Muslim country, was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack nearly a decade ago, sparking street violence and plunging Pakistan into months of political turmoil.
Former president and military ruler 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.

The anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi ruled he had “absconded”, a court official said outside, saying it had also ordered the confiscation of his property. The court acquitted five men who had been accused of being Taliban militants involved in the conspiracy to kill Bhutto. They were set to walk free nearly 10 years after they were first arrested, though a defense lawyer said it was not yet clear when they would be released. However the judges found two police officers guilty of “mishandling the crime scene”, the court official said.

The police officers-Saud Aziz, who was chief of Rawalpindi police at the time, and senior officer Khurram Shahzad-are now the only two people to have been convicted over Bhutto’s assassination. Shahzad was accused of hosing down the crime scene less than two hours after the assassination took place-an act the United Nations described in a report into the assassination as “fundamentally inconsistent with Pakistani police practice”. Aziz was accused of both giving Shahzad permission to hose down the scene, and of refusing to allow an autopsy of Bhutto’s body to go ahead.

They were each been sentenced to 17 years imprisonment and fined 500,000 rupees ($4,700), according to a court order. Musharraf’s government blamed the assassination on Pakistani Taleban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who denied any involvement. He was killed in a US drone attack in 2009. In 2010, the UN report accused Musharraf’s government of failing to give Bhutto adequate protection and said her death could have been prevented.–AFP