“We are offering more than a million rupees to lawyers to handle the Benazir assassination case at the trial court level. But it has been almost a month (since Chaudhry Zulfiqar was killed) and no one is accepting the offer,” reveals Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Special Prosecutor Chaudhry Azhar.
In short, the shocking murder of Chaudhry Zulfiqar, the chief prosecutor in the trial, was enough to scare lawyers from taking up high-profile cases.
Chaudhry Azhar understands the imminent threats to his life. In losing Zulfiqar, he lost a friend and colleague whom he was working with on several high-profile cases of which the murder trial of former prime minister, the late Benazir Bhutto, was only one. Azhar is now overlooking the case, even while the FIA seeks someone to handle the case at the trial court level.
Azhar was scheduled to accompany Zulfiqar on May 3 when the latter was gunned down by unknown assailants near his house in Islamabad’s G-9 sector. As fate would have it, he had to appear before the Supreme Court for the Haj scam case, and thus narrowly avoided death unlike his friend.
“On my way to meet Chaudhry Zulfiqar, I got a phone call from some security official who advised me to be careful. He told me Chaudhry Zulfiqar and his body guard were rushed to a hospital after an assassination attempt,” Azhar told Dawn.com.
In Pakistan’s high-profile criminal and terror-related cases which receive too much media attention, the job of prosecutors as well as of the defence counsels is becoming more and more perilous.
Lawyers prosecuting a high-profile criminal or suspected terrorist have always been soft targets, given their public dealing, accessibility and lack of proper security arrangements. Likewise, the counsels defending ‘big-shots’ may invite the ire of the establishment.
Although threats for members of the legal fraternity have always existed, the assassination of Chaudhry Zulfiqar exposed the fragility of the situation.
On the morning of May 3, 2013, Chaudhry Zulfiqar left home to appear in an anti-terrorism court hearing the Benazir murder case with particular reference to one of the accused – Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf.
For his family, life would never be the same. Qamar Abbas, son of the slain prosecutor, had no inclination to discuss the issue with the media. He said life had changed forever after the tragedy struck the family.
Zulfiqar used to live near Karachi Company, a busy commercial area in the federal capital. As soon as he turned onto the main road, the assailants chased him. They sprayed bullets on his car near the General Post Office. It all happened fast, but the escape was still surprising. Just a stone’s throw away from where Zulfiqar was murdered, a permanent police check-post operates 24/7. Less than half-a-kilometre away is the headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and sub-offices of other intelligence agencies.
Several times before his tragic death, the prosecutor told journalists about the threats he was receiving from unidentified people. He was also very media-savvy and often held press talks after court hearings. Perhaps the limelight he received from the media also contributed to his death.
Later, the police claimed to have found a bag near the crime scene that contained an Italian-made gun and a pamphlet from a previously unknown or little-known outfit “Mujahideen-i-Islam.”
The message from the pamphlet was bone-chilling and revealed that Zulfiqar’s was a cold-blooded and well-planned murder. It read: “Whoever acts against Islam would meet the same fate.”
Requesting anonymity, an official of the Islamabad police claimed to have made some progress in Zulfiqar's murder case. He refused to share the details, given the sensitivity of the matter.
There’s always a motive
As an FIA prosecutor, Zulfiqar was also pursuing the case of the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed. He was about to submit the final set of evidence against a proscribed organisation, Lashkar-i-Taiba.
In the Benazir murder case, he had opposed the granting of bail to Musharraf, the co-accused. His colleagues and superiors always recognised his skills of processing available evidence against accused persons.
Azhar, meanwhile, claimed Taliban militants had assassinated his predecessor, who received several threatening telephone calls from Afghanistan. Others, meanwhile, thought it was the handiwork of state agencies to extricate the former army chief from the mess he found himself in after his return to Pakistan.
Azhar laughed at the government’s claim of providing him “box security.” The Lahore-based lawyer has to travel almost every other day to the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad to appear in trial and superior courts. He fears that during those lengthy hours of travel either via the Motorway or GT Road, he could become a fresh target of the same elements who took Zulfiqar’s life.
Dragging their feet in fear
The position of trial court judges is no better. They face extreme pressure from various quarters that impedes their progress. In 2011, an Anti-Terror Court (ATC) judge in the Benazir Bhutto murder case, Rana Nisar, was transferred, apparently because of his fast-paced work. He was also subject to government apathy. Before his transfer, he wrote a letter to the Punjab Home Department stating that his security had been reduced amid threats to his life. For security reasons, he was hearing the case within Rawalpindi's Adiala Jail where five of the accused – Aitzaz Shah, Husnain Gul, Rashid Turabi, Sher Zaman and Raffaqat – were being kept.
While prosecutors ask for the speedy disposal of high-profile cases under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), many judges seem to have found a way to avoid putting themselves at risk. They prolong the case by ensuring there are extended periods between hearings, thus avoiding the wrath of those who choose violence over justice.
The inordinate delay in resolving high-profile criminal and terror cases negates the very essence of Pakistani law and repeated court verdicts. Section 19 (7) of the ATA stipulates that once the accused are charged, the case should be heard on a daily basis. The courts are bound to conclude the hearing and deliver a verdict within six months. In reality, this does not happen. The Benazir assassination case has been lingering for over five years, with no end in sight.
In February this year, Justice Chaudhry Habibur Rehman of the Lahore High Court (LHC) directed the ATC to hear the Benazir case on a daily basis. He issued that order on the request of the late Chaudhry Zulfiqar. After what transpired on May 3, the LHC may not be issuing such directions anymore.
A dangerous precedent
Naveed Raza Mughal, a lawyer who works closely with the FIA, said he had also received threats from unknown people. He endorsed Azhar’s viewpoint that lawyers were refusing high-profile cases despite higher-than-ordinary financial compensation.
“Nothing is more precious than life. The lawyers have been very cautious, especially after recent incidents of murder and torture of their colleagues. The chief justice has taken a few suo motu notices, but the ground realities remain unchanged,” he explained.
The story of the acquittal of Malik Ishaq, leader of the proscribed Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, is another interesting case in point. Back in 1997, he publicly admitted killing scores of people. He was arrested and charged in dozens of murder cases. In July 2011, the Supreme Court released him because of ‘lack of evidence.’ It might not be a mere coincidence that five prosecution witnesses and three of their relatives were killed during the trial of Ishaq.
Similar was the story of Wali Khan Babar, a Geo News reporter, murdered in January 2011. One by one, six of the eyewitnesses were brutally murdered and the police never caught the killers.
Justice seems to be missing for these watchmen of the justice system in Pakistan. They face a constant wall of threats and insecurity and in search of truth, they jeopardise their lives.
Shahzad Raza is a freelance contributor. His twitter handle is @shahz79