Footprints: A murder unsolved

Published September 20, 2016
LENSMAN Muhammad Azeem is seen with the photograph of fatally wounded Mir Murtaza Bhutto that he had taken on Sept 20, 1996 after a ‘police encounter’ in Clifton.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
LENSMAN Muhammad Azeem is seen with the photograph of fatally wounded Mir Murtaza Bhutto that he had taken on Sept 20, 1996 after a ‘police encounter’ in Clifton.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: For news photographers covering Karachi, snapping deadly crime scenes, including mutilated bodies, is hardly rare. Indeed, for the past three decades and more, this beleaguered city has been witness to several bloody events with newsmen documenting them closely.

But for photographer Muhammad Azeem, one picture clicked in a hospital on the night of Sept 20, 1996, holds a deeper meaning. As he took the picture of an injured man riddled with bullets and lying on a stretcher in a pool of blood, he needed to convince himself that the victim was no other than Mir Murtaza Bhutto — the brother of the then prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

“I was at my office when I was told about a police ‘encounter’ in Clifton in which the injured were shifted to Mideast Hospital,” he recalls. “I rushed there and just outside the hospital, I asked a man about the incident. He said Murtaza Bhutto was shot by the police and had just been brought here in a police mobile. I smiled at what I thought was nonsense. The place was heavily guarded by the police but I managed to sneak in.”

Minutes later, Azeem experienced one of the rarest moments of his professional career. He found himself trembling at the sight of Murtaza Bhutto breathing his last with only two hospital staff members near the stretcher.

“I controlled my nerves and feelings and clicked multiple times,” says Azeem. “He was alive but very close to death. The hospital staff was moving him to the operating theatre. I can’t forget that moment when Murtaza Bhutto opened his eyes for a few seconds and tried to speak to me but couldn’t. As I moved closer, policemen spotted me and shouted ‘pakro issay’ [‘catch him’]. I ran away and hid in the hospital’s medical store.”

The next morning the front-page photograph in the daily Qaumi Akhbar taken by Azeem created a far more powerful impact than the news of the killing of Murtaza Bhutto and seven of his associates in a ‘police encounter’.

The events of the September night that still haunts Azeem summarise the country’s political trajectory; they challenge its judicial system and question its mysterious security apparatus. Justice in one of the most high-profile killings in the country’s history continues to be elusive — even after two decades the judicial and policing systems have not a single suspect described as the perpetrator of this tragedy.

One after another, the accused were acquitted. It doesn’t end there. Those who were seen as suspicious because of their role and offices at the time of the incident, came to occupy prestigious positions in public service. Some continue to do so.

On the evening of Sept 18, Murtaza Bhutto’s widow Ghinwa Bhutto with dozens of workers of her faction of the PPP (the Shaheed Bhutto group) gathered at the venue of the murder site just outside her home, the well-known 70 Clifton address, to mark her husband’s 62nd birthday — two days before his death anniversary.

Scattered amid the lit candles and pro-Bhutto slogans were several questions. With no answers forthcoming from state institutions or the authorities, Murtaza Bhutto’s family and supporters are convinced he was killed for swimming against the tide. “How one can expect justice from those who are blamed for the crime?” asks a participant at the remembrance without naming anyone. “We haven’t lost faith yet. Sooner or later, the truth will prevail.”

In December 2009, a sessions court in Karachi acquitted all 18 policemen in the Murtaza Bhutto murder case. Those acquitted included Shoaib Suddle, the then DIG of Sindh police; Masood Sharif, ex-director general of the Intelligence Bureau; SSP Wajid Durrani; ASP Shahid Hayat; SHO of the Napier police station, Inspector Agha Mohammed Jameel; ASP Rai Mohammed Tahir; sub-inspector Shabbir Ahmed Qaimkhani; ASI Abdul Basit; head constable Faisal Hafeez; head constable Raja Hameed; and police constables Ghulam Shabbir, Zulfiqar Ahmed, Zakir Mehmood, Zafar Iqbal, Ahmed Jan, Gulzir Khan, Ghulam Mustafa and Muslim Shah.

The accused police officers maintained all along that they only retaliated when Murtaza Bhutto’s guards opened fire.

The trial took over 13 years to conclude. A number of judges had sent references to the Singh High Court, stating they could not conduct the proceedings and requesting the case be transferred to another court. There were lengthy cross-examinations of witnesses by the defence, and long adjournments were sought by the defence counsel. Meanwhile, Asif Ali Zardari, also nominated as an accused along with then SP Shakaib Qureshi, was frequently abroad and there was a general lack of interest on the part of the prosecution witnesses.

Mr Zardari had moved a review application in the Sindh High Court and in April 2008, Justice Syed Pir Ali Shah acquitted him.

Mr Qureshi was exonerated in November 2008 when sessions judge Abdul Rahman Bhatti allowed his acquittal application moved under Section 265-K of the CrPC. For the main PPP, which never showed an interest in allowing the tragic murder of the son and brother of their leaders to reach its logical conclusion during its rule in Sindh, the events were, in fact, an attempt to weaken the Benazir Bhutto government that fell two months after the murder.

“In September 1996, Murtaza Bhutto was killed and in November, our elected government was shown the door,” says Senator Saeed Ghani of the PPP. “Right after his murder, the government launched the probe with the help of Scotland Yard but BB was never allowed to reach the killers. It was a loss for the Bhutto family. It’s only the Benazir Bhutto government which tried its best for justice as governments between 1996 and 2008 did not even remember this tragedy.”

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2016

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