Chaudhry Zulfikar (inset) was driving his car to work when he was attacked by assailants. As he lost control of his car, it careened up an adjacent green belt and smashed into a tree | WhiteStar
Chaudhry Zulfikar (inset) was driving his car to work when he was attacked by assailants. As he lost control of his car, it careened up an adjacent green belt and smashed into a tree | WhiteStar

Dynamic and headstrong, Chaudhry Zulfikar, the FIA’s lead prosecutor in the Benazir Bhutto case, carried an unrelenting reputation of pursuing some of the most dangerous cases in the country. For this fact alone, he was looked on with a mixture of admiration and weary amazement. Among the high profile cases he was pursuing was the Mumbai attack probe in which he had brought evidence against seven members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

Zulfikar also brought murder charges against General Pervez Musharraf in the Benazir Bhutto assassination case, the first time a former military dictator had been made to appear before a judge in the country’s history. The unprecedented move, it was said, angered many in the military establishment who would not countenance the humiliation of a former army chief.

“He faced danger from so many fronts,” a fellow prosecutor and friend of Zukfikar’s told Eos. “But he was a remarkable man, a remarkable lawyer. He fought every case like his life depended on it.”

The death threats had started to increase in the final days, but Zulfikar trudged boldly on. His murder might have remained completely unresolved, if it weren’t for one fortuitous stroke of luck that helped investigators achieve a breakthrough.

The inside story of the assassination of the lead prosecutor in the Benazir Bhutto murder case, and what it tells us about who killed her

Zulfikar was killed as he made his way to court on the morning of May 3, 2013, to appear in hearing of the Benazir murder case. He was driving himself and was escorted by an armed guard sitting on the passenger seat. As he prepared to take make a turn, the assassins drove alongside the car and sprayed it with a hail of bullets. They pumped 10 bullets into Zulfikar’s chest and also injured the guard who was shot in the back. Zulfikar then lost control of the car which careened up an adjacent green belt and ran over a female bystander before smashing into a tree. The woman, who had just dropped her child off at school, died instantly. Job done, the assassins prepared to flee the scene.

Chaudhry Zulfikar
Chaudhry Zulfikar

As Chaudhry Zulfikar lay dying at the steering wheel, the security guard Farman Ali managed to return fire with an AK-47. Amazingly, he managed to hit two of the fleeing assassins, killing one and gravely injuring the other. A third assassin trailing in a car behind was able to collect the body of his accomplice and the other injured gunmen and escape.

The search for the killers began literally with the trail of blood they left behind them. This sole clue turned out to be the most important one for police. They knew the injured suspect would need immediate medical attention otherwise he wouldn’t survive. Investigators looked at every hospital within a 50-mile radius and few weeks later they found a man matching the suspect’s description in a hospital in Rawalpindi. The boy had been shot in the spine and was completely paralysed from the waist down. He was being attended to by his father who told them his boy had been shot by bandits, but the police knew they had their man. Blood samples from the crime scene matched the patients.

The boy’s name was Abdullah Umar Abbasi. An Al Qaeda militant, he had been involved in a string of major terrorist operations including a deadly attack on the Parade Lane mosque in 2009 that killed 39 people including Major General Bilal Omer. Abdullah did not fit the profile of an average militant. He came from a Punjabi, middle-class background, with roots in the Pakistan Army.

But the family had a dark history. Abdullah’s father who stood by his bedside was a former colonel who had been imprisoned and court martialled 10 years earlier over helping to hide the mastermind of 9-11, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. Police officials say Abdullah’s path to violence was unique and that he was driven more by vengeance than religious ideology. Evidently Abdullah, only 12 years old at the time of his father’s court martial, had been radicalised after witnessing the humiliating treatment his father received at the hands of the Pakistani military after his Al Qaeda links were discovered.

From his hospital bed, Abdullah admitted to the police that he was involved in the attack on Chaudhry Zulfikar and gave them information about the rest of the plotters. The second assassin was a man called Harris who had been shot and killed by the security guard, but the third accomplice, who had put them both in the car and driven them away from the scene, was named Tanveer.

Tanveer then took Harris and Abdullah to a safe house in Bara Kahu, on the outskirts of Islamabad. The house was owned by two brothers named Adnan and Hammad. They buried Harris in the backyard of their house and managed to get Abdullah to a hospital. Police were later able to arrest the two brothers from the safe house and also recovered the decomposing body of Harris from a shallow grave in the backyard.

The brothers Adnan and Hammad, it turned out, had been facilitators of several attacks including the assassination of Christian Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti and a suicide attack on the Danish embassy in Islamabad. Tanveer, the driver of the car, was a hardened Al Qaeda militant who was wanted in multiple attacks across the country including assassinating serving generals of the Pakistan army and attacking Nato supply terminals and other targets. Crucially, he was also involved in the attack on the Pakistan Air Force aeronautical engineering complex in Kamra.

Eos has been able to obtain documents that show that an accused individual in the Benazir Bhutto murder case, one Rasheed Ahmed Turabi, also confessed to his involvement in the Kamra attack, and was one of the men being prosecuted by Chaudhry Zulfikar himself. Former Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Eos he has seen information which suggests that the missiles used to attack the Kamra air base were first requisitioned to be used on Benazir’s convoy as she travelled between Wah and Taxila but the plan fell apart. Though circumstantial, this evidence strongly indicates that there was a link between the killers of Benazir Bhutto and Chaudhry Zulfikar.

“I have no doubt the same people who killed Benazir sent their men for Chaudhry Zulfikar” says one of his FIA colleagues. “He would boldly stare down these men [the accused] every day in court and never flinch. They wanted to send a message to anyone who dared to bring a conviction in the case.”

A few months later, Abdullah, who had lost the use of both his legs was given bail on medical grounds. Soon after, he disappeared. Abdullah’s father, Colonel (retd) Khalid Mehmood, informed the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) that his son was picked up by the officials of an intelligence agency. Later, the Islamabad police — responding to a petition filed by Abdullah’s wife, Zainab Zaeem, for the recovery of her husband — told the Islamabad High Court that he may be in the custody of the ISI.

When Eos spoke to Chaudhry Zukfikar’s son, Nisar, who also worked as his father’s legal apprentice, the slain officer’s son argued that his father’s assassination is the reason that the all the TTP and Al Qaeda-linked militants were acquitted in the Benazir Bhutto murder case.

“My father was adamant that the people who killed her should be given an exemplary punishment,” he says. “He was certain he would get a conviction.”

He says the climate of fear that his father’s assassination created prevented witnesses from coming forward and also sent a clear message to judges, warning against any adverse verdict. He believes that police have not pursued his father’s killers for the same reason.

Nisar’s frustration with the slow progress of his father’s case and anger at the court’s decision to grant Abdullah bail on medical grounds led him to clash with the judge of the Anti Terrorism Court, Kausar Abbas Zaidi. Nisar approached the high court in Islamabad to instruct the judge to expedite the case. In the course of this, it is alleged that Nisar passed on documents to journalists which attributed remarks to the judge which he said he never made. He was charged with forgery and arrested on the orders of the ATC judge who is also hearing his father’s murder case. Nisar is currently incarcerated in Adiala jail, the same prison where his father’s alleged killers are housed. He has said he will never stop struggling for justice for his father. —ZZ

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 24th, 2017

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