ISLAMABAD, Dec 26: Repeated and unending investigations, indifferent lawyers, a chaotic judicial system and a government that really didn’t care have all ensured that Benazir Bhutto murder trial is going nowhere.
Five different judges have headed the trial and the prosecution has filed eight separate challans since the proceeding started on February 29, 2008, which have also added to the delay as have the investigations by two different investigation teams.
Initially, the case seemed to move quickly.
Within a month of the assassination in 2007, the police on January 21, 2008, arrested Aitzaz Shah and Sher Zaman for their alleged involvement in the assassination. This led to the first challan that was filed by Punjab government, which was heading the investigations in the shape of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT).
Shortly afterwards, the police arrested Husnain Gul and Rafaqat Hussain, another two accused on February 7, 2008, from Rawalpindi and the second challan followed.
A week later on February 14, 2008, another accused Rasheed Ahmed alias Abdul Rasheed Turabi was arrested from Pir Wadhai in Rawalpindi.
By Feb 29, the trial had started; in November the ATC had framed the charges and in the summer of 2009, the ministry of interior appointed Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali as special prosecutor.
But in 2009 the PPP government decided to handle the investigations itself and the FIA formed a new JIT to oversee the investigations.
In August 2009 the then deputy attorney general and a member of the federal JIT requested the ATC to adjourn the case till the completion of its investigation.
This led to the first major delay. For the next years, there was no progress in the court case till October 10, 2010 when the next hearing was held.
In the meantime, a spate of new challans followed over the years as the circle of accused and suspects widened — dictated more by politics than hard-core evidence.
The third challan — and FIA’s first — was submitted on May 25, 2010, fourth on June 11, 2010, fifth on November 11, 2010, sixth on December 12, 2010, seventh on February 2, 2011, and the eighth and last was submitted to the court on June 6, 2012.
Musharraf was included in the challan during the FIA’s watch as were then Rawalpindi police chief Saud Aziz and SP Khurram Shahzad Haider who were responsible for the security arrangements for the jalsa on Dec 27.
All three of them were hauled up for their ‘involvement’ early last year – nearly three years after the PPP government was voted in.
Why the evidence to their ‘guilt’ was found as late as 2011 remains unclear.
This is also when Baitullah Mehsud and his accomplices, Ibadur Rehman, Abdullah alias Saddam, Faiz Mohammad, Ikramullah, Nasrullah and Nadir alias Qari Ismail, were nominated.
The court issued arrest warrants for former president Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf in Feb 2011, days after his name was added to the challan. By May the same year he was declared proclaimed offender and his property was confiscated in August.
Aziz and Haider too were arrested though they are now out on bail.
Since then, the rate of progress has been slow. Delay has also been caused in the time-honoured tradition of lawyers asking for adjournments or not turning up for the proceedings.
And when asked they blame their opponents.
Malik Jawad Khalid, counsel of two accused persons – Rafaqat and Hasnain Gul – told Dawn that the federal government and the prosecution agency were responsible for the delay.
According to him, the prosecution agency had named 132 witnesses. “It is very difficult to cross-examine such a huge number of witnesses.
So far, only 15 prosecution witnesses have recorded their statements and have been cross-examined by the defence counsel,” he added.
He, however, admitted that the defence counsel frequently missed the proceedings due to other engagements. “But the prosecutors also sought adjournment at least 10 to 15 times during the last two years,” he argued.
Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, special prosecutor of the FIA, said that in order to sum up the case he had shortlisted 40 prosecution witnesses out of 132 before commencement of trial in 2010.
He blamed the defence counsel for the delay.
Zulfiqar Ali said that during 2011 and 2010 he had moved three applications before the ATC court for conducting a day-to-day trial of BB murder case but that “the ATC rejected my applications”.
The last application in this regard was rejected by the ATC on June 22, 2012.
Ali then challenged the ATC decision in the Lahore High Court, Rawalpindi bench, in July and on December 17, the LHC division bench finally directed the ATC for the expeditious trial of the case.
It remains to be seen, if this actually galvanises the court and the two sides into action.