An anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Karachi postponed on Thursday the pronouncement of the verdict in the murder case of renowned rights activist Perween Rahman, who was shot dead in the metropolis in 2013.
The 55-year-old activist, who was heading the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) and had devoted her life to the development of impoverished neighbourhoods, was gunned down near her office in Orangi Town on March 13, 2013.
On Thursday, the ATC-VII judge was set to finally pronounce the verdict, which was reserved on October 15 after the court had recorded the evidence and final arguments in the eight-year-long trial.
Five persons have been charged in the high-profile murder case, namely Abdul Raheem Swati and his son, Mohammad Imran Swati, and three co-accused, Ayaz Shamzai alias Swati, Amjad Hussain Khan and Ahmed Khan alias Pappu Kashmiri.
All the accused were brought to the court from the prison ahead of the expected verdict.
However, at the outset of the hearing, a special public prosecutor, Neel Parkash, moved an application on behalf of the state.
The prosecutor submitted that he had been recently handed over the cases that had previously been handled by others in different courts.
Parkash said he had gone through the contents of the confessional statement of Raheem, the primary accused. The statement, he said, was recorded before then West Zone Investigation SSP Akhtar Farooqui under Section 21H of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997.
He further submitted that he had also gone through SSP Farooqui's statement recorded before the court, in which he had deposed that the accused hatched a conspiracy for Rahman's murder and that the statement was part of the case record.
The prosecutor pleaded with the court to allow an application for framing an amended charge against the accused under Section 120B (punishment for criminal conspiracy) of the Pakistan Penal Code for hatching a conspiracy to kill Rahman.
At that, the judge issued notices to the complainant's counsel, Advocate Salahuddin Panhwar, and defence counsels Advocate Shah Imroz Khan and Advocate Ajab Khan Khattak, directing them to advance their arguments on the application on November 3.
He also deferred the pronouncement of the verdict until then.
Initially, the case for Rahman's murder was registered under Sections 302 (premeditated murder) and 34 (common intention) of the Pakistan Penal Code at the Pirabad police station.
Later, Section 7 (punishment for acts of terrorism) of the ATA 1997 was incorporated in the case on the basis of a judicial inquiry conducted by then district and sessions judge (west) Ghulam Mustafa Memon on the orders of the Supreme Court.
Arguments by complainant's lawyer
At the last hearing, when the court had recorded final arguments in the case, Advocate Faisal Siddiqui had represented the complainant, Aquila Ismail, contending that primary accused Raheem Swati was a land grabber who had planned Rahman's murder and killed her with help of the Taliban over a dispute involving a piece of land in Pirabad.
He has said that Swati had also recorded his confessional statement before then SSP Akhtar Farooqui under Section 21H of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997.
In his statement, the accused disclosed that local leaders of the Awami National Party (ANP) had hired Taliban militants to kill the 55-year-old rights activist, he had pointed out.
According to the confessional statement, Raheem Swati and another accused, Ayaz Shamzai — both of whom were said to be local leaders of the ANP — were living near the OPP's office and had tried to obtain a designated area to build a karate centre there, the counsel had said, adding that Rahman had refused to allow them the use of the land.
Siddiqui had further stated that all the accused persons were present in a meeting held in January 2013 at Raheem Swati’s residence in which they had planned Rahman’s murder.
They hired a local commander of the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Moosa, and Mehfoozullah aka Bhaloo for the murder, he had added.
The counsel had also recalled that in a interview to a foreign radio two years before her murder,
Rahman had called Raheem Swati a “land grabber and extortionist” and stated that the latter wanted to illegally occupy the land of the OPP’s office.
He had argued that Rahman’s interview corroborated with the confessional statement of accused Raheem Swati.
Secondly, the counsel had continued, such confessional statements of primary accused before a police officer was a legally admissible evidence equal to a confessional statement recorded before a judicial magistrate under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
To support his argument, the counsel had cited rulings rendered by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on the point of legality of the confessional statement of an accused before the district police officer in lieu of a judicial magistrate subject to the circumstances.
Concluding his argument, Siddiqui had said Raheem Swati had also confessed that after Rahman's murder, he had absconded to Swat Valley to avoid his arrest, but he was tracked down and arrested by the police.
Defence counsel's arguments
On the other hand, the defence counsel for Raheem Swati, Imran Swati and Ahmed Khan had contended that his clients could not be tried and punished merely on the basis of evidence that was full of glaring contradictions.
Advocate Shah Imroze Khan had argued that the victim had purportedly disclosed the name of some land grabbers and extortionists, including Raheem Swati, in an interview given to a foreign radio two years before her alleged assassination, but she had also named some politicians, including Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s senior leader Dr Farooq Sattar and the party’s former MPA from Orangi Town, Abdul Qudoos.
However, the joint investigation team (JIT) constituted on the directives of the Supreme Court to probe the matter had not mentioned names of these politicians in its report, he had added.
The counsel had further argued that the prosecution claimed that Raheem Swati had remained a general councillor and also sector in-charge of the Awami National Party in Orangi, adding that the ANP had no post of sector in-charge in its organisational structure.
He had maintained that the JIT had recorded the statement of a journalist, Fahad Deshmukh, who had interviewed Rahman, six years after Rahman's murder and that the delay did not make sense. In the purported interview, Rahman had named “land grabbers” for attempting to occupy the land of her office, but the prosecution failed to establish the role of Raheem Swati as a land grabber, he had claimed.
Secondly, the counsel had said, the prosecution had relied upon the confessional statement, purportedly voluntarily recorded, by Raheem Swati before then SSP Farooqui, who claimed the latter was arrested on May 7, 2013 while he was actually arrested in 2016.
The counsel claimed that Raheem's confessional statement was highly "doubtful" as there were serious defects such as Farooqui not giving any plausible reason for recording the purported confessional statement of Raheem Swati himself instead of producing the accused before a judicial magistrate to record the statement under Section 164 of the CrPC.
If the accused had "voluntarily" recorded his confessional then why was his thumbprint impression missing from the document, the lawyer had questioned.
The counsel had also claimed that such purported confession was kept by Farooqui in his custody without "sealing" the documents, which the police officer had also admitted to during his cross-examination.
He had claimed that there was no material evidence available with the prosecution against the accused since the incident was an “unseen occurrence” and the prosecution had failed to examine any private witness from the crime scene despite the fact that the incident had taken place in a marketplace.
Advocate Khan had argued that bullet casings collected from the crime scene had also matched with a pistol used by another accused, Qari Bilal, therefore, such forensic evidence also did not implicate Raheem Swati in the offence.
Regarding the role of accused Imran Swati and Ahmed Khan, the counsel had said police had initially released Imran after he was declared innocent under Section 169 of the CrPC, but later detained him for allegedly being a facilitator in the offence after an amended charge was framed against him. The punishment for such an offence was seven years in prison, while Imran’s incarceration in jail had surpassed this period, he had added.
He had said the prosecution alleged that Ahmed Khan had disclosed a meeting in which it was decided to kill Rahman and the accused had been jailed for a period longer than the punishment for the offence.